"Where is victory?" the Italian national anthem asks at one point. The Azzurri cannot buy one at present – not that anyone involved in Italian football would ever consider doing such a thing, of course – but as France cannot either, the group of you-know-what is even more intriguing than expected going into Tuesday's final round.
After two superb games on Friday, Holland have qualified and could well find it to their advantage to lose against Romania, who would then go through with them, eliminating the two World Cup finalists. So there will be a sense of desperation about the latter pair's meeting in Zurich, as they know that even the most resounding of wins could be in vain.
On Friday's evidence, Italy look to be in the better shape. Two not particularly popular coaches, confronted with the necessity of thinking again after poor opening performances, revamped the formation and personnel of their teams for the second games, and the Italians made the more significant improvement. Bringing in Alessandro Del Piero, Simone Perrotta and Daniele De Rossi to the midfield offered much better support to the powerful Luca Toni, whose aerial performance should be giving the French central defensive pair, William Gallas and Lilian Thuram, sleepless nights. Toni had a perfectly good goal disallowed just before half-time when a Romanian defenderdid not move out quickly enough, although the decision that annoyed Italy's coach, Roberto Donadoni, more was the penaltyawarded against Christian Panucci for manhandling Daniel Niculae with 10 minutes to play.
Only Gianluigi Buffon's brilliant save when initially diving the wrong way to Adrian Mutu's kick kept the world champions in the competition and, it might be said, kept Donadoni in a job. "We played well," he insisted with some justification. "We suffered in certain moments because Romania are a team to be reckoned with. But we created more chances." The statisticians did not agree, calculating 10 Italian attempts to Romania's 16, one of which struck the post. With Buffon's top saves – at least three of them – needing to match Bogdan Lobont's best work in the opposing goal, the neutral view was that a draw was a fair result, albeit one that serves the Romanians much the better.
Donadoni says of Tuesday's encounter with the French: "It is a key game, and the beginning of that game is going to be reallyimportant. We have to prepare properly and we will be able to use that adrenalin that has been built up.
"It is going to be decisive for our future, we know that. Obviously the players are disap-pointed, because they have not reaped as much as they have sown. Disappointment is natural,but it will be short-lived."
France, dropping both strikers and switching to a 4-2-3-1 system in support of Thierry Henry, may have improved on their feeble performance in the goalless draw with Romania yet still suffered their worst defeat in 50 years at a final tournament when falling 4-1 against Holland, the team of the competition so far. As the French coach, Raymond Domenech, admitted, the weakness for once was the defence, in which Thuram at 36 may have gone one competition too far. He and Gallas were constantly exposed by Dutch pace on the counterattack, with the sometimes infuriating Arjen Robben outstanding this time. "It will be tough against Italy," Domenech said. "It will be our own final. We have to use it to show what we can do and hope the other result goes our way."
That means a win for the Dutch, and although Marco van Basten is making all the right noises about playing to win ("We have an obligation to play well"), the inevitable temptation is to rest first-choice players. Those coming in will be out to impress, but Romania showed resilience in their first game and quality in their second.
A draw between France and Italy would put the Romanians through to play the winners of the Spain-Sweden group as long as they do not lose heavily. The French and Italians are a point behind them with a weak goal-difference of 1-4, though unlike Turkey and the Czech Republic today, there are no circumstances in which their fate could again be settled by a penalty shoot-out.
So where is victory? Without one, either of the World Cup finalists, and possibly both, will be flying home on Wednesday.