Goal-fest? Why patience game favours the Azzurri

Domenech the intellectual plays his tarot cards right to win over the French doubters but wise old Lippi may have the trump in Cannavaro for Italy
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The Independent Online

Not since 1966 have two teams arrived in the World Cup final having conceded as few goals as France and Italy. All those without allegiance to either nation will be hoping above all that the resulting contest this evening is as captivating as the one at Wembley 40 years ago.

Like Alf Ramsey's England (who played one game fewer along the way), Italy's meanest of machines has been breached but once, and that by a freak own goal turned in by Cristian Zaccardo against the United States. Like Helmut Schön's valiant Germans, France have been undone only twice, in their case by South Korea's Ji-Sung Park and Spain's David Villa.

There is certainly sufficient class and quality among the attacking players on either side to prevent a stalemate, but in order to guard against disappointment, it is worth bearing in mind that one of the most entertaining of modern tournaments is unlikely to be rounded off with a goal-fest. Only one player on the pitch, Thierry Henry, is remotely in contention for even a share of the Golden Boot award as the tournament's leading scorer; and even the most fervent French supporter would not fancy his chances of equalling Miroslav Klose's tally, let alone overhauling it to win outright.

The French equivalent of 30 July 1966 was 12 July 1998, when Brazil were beaten 3-0 in the Paris final. Henry had to watch from the substitutes' bench that day, though in a team devoid of forward power, his modest total of three goals still made him the world champions' leading scorer. More significantly, five other members of that squad will be on duty this evening, four of whom - Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira and Zinedine Zidane - are expected to start with Henry.

Only David Trezeguet, the scourge of Italy in the Euro 2000 final, will be confined to the bench, though with Manchester United's Louis Saha suspended after foolishly collecting a yellow card in the semi-final, he can expect a summons if things are not going well.

It is an impressive body of experience, ultimately overcoming fears about wise old heads being negated by tired old legs. For a while, in group games against Switzerland (0-0) and South Korea (1-1), the pessimistic theory seemed to hold good. Vieira and Zidane both looked below par and there was little cause for optimism. Finishing only second to Switzerland meant a harder second-round tie, against the vibrant Spanish, but from the time of Franck Ribéry's equalising goal just before half-time France took off. They soared away in the second half of that game, then deservedly left Brazil behind in their quarter- final and saw off Portugal to vindicate the hotly debated appointment two years ago of Raymond Domenech, an intellectual interested in astrology and tarot, seen to be playing his cards right at last.

Vieira and Zidane have revived memories of halcyon days, while the younger midfielders Ribéry and Florent Malouda have done some of their running for them and grown in maturity. Thuram has been outstanding and William Gallas solid alongside him. Less positively, Barthez is still prone to the odd gaffe, as he showed in flapping Cristiano Ronaldo's free-kick up in the air last Wednesday, when the left-back Eric Abidal looked a weak link for the first time.

Henry, though he won the penalty with a smart turn and almost scored at the start of the second half, remains a slightly enigmatic figure in French blue rather than Arsenal red, often left unsupported for too long and looking as though he wished his old Musketeer - or Gunner - Robert Pires was joining him on the type of swift counter-attack that has laid waste to so many Premiership defences.

Seeing off Fabio Cannavaro, a much better bet as the player of the tournament, will be an altogether different proposition. No wonder Arsenal's manager, Arsène Wenger, for all his bias, says: "To win the game, you need a great Thierry and a big Zidane. But I believe as well that this group of players is exceptional, this team now has gone with three different coaches, once to a World Cup final, once to a European Championship final, and now again to a World Cup final. They had a bad start, but you knew they'd go through from their group, and then you never know. In a direct knockout situation, experience becomes very important.

"You need to be patient, not to make a mistake and wait for the first mistake of your opponent, and that's what this France team have done better than anybody. Football has become massively important in every country. So much rests on the games that it blocks, a little bit, the teams' initiative."

That tends towards the conclusion that a stalemate could result. Biased or patriotic as he may be, Wenger admits: "It's a real 50-50, frankly, because Italy has more variation going forward than any other team we have played, even more than Brazil."

What the Italian players have done admirably is ignore the chaos going on in the current scandals of domestic football, which threatens more than half the squad with demotion from Serie A through no fault of their own. Anyone seeing only the bare statistical detail of the semi-final victory over Germany might have concluded it was a stereotypical smash-and-grab performance. There was no hint in the figures of the sublime football and measured control in a game whose only disappointment was that the host country did not live up to the standards they had previously set.

The one set of figures that might worry the Azzurri is their recent record against today's opponents, whom they have not beaten since the 1978 World Cup. It is high time to redress that balance, and the smartest money, reflected in the bookmakers' odds, is for Marcello Lippi's team to do so by the only goal.

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