Off-colour Azzurri still in the shadow of France

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Da Imperia a Lisbone, un solo grido: Italia campione! From Imperia to Lisbon just one shout: Italy champions!

Da Imperia a Lisbone, un solo grido: Italia campione! From Imperia to Lisbon just one shout: Italy champions!

That was the brave proclamation from one banner behind Gianluigi Buffon's goal but that is the question: Are Italy genuine rivals for France's European crown, having handed it to them in Rotterdam four years ago? Or are they just pretenders, flattering to deceive?

It is a mystery why Italy have not won more since they picked up the World Cup 22 years ago, their last international tournament victory. Triumphs at club level in the European Cup and Uefa Cup have flowed forth but they have come up short since that victory in Madrid in 1982.

When they were beaten by David Trezeguet's golden goal in Rotterdam in 2000 they had only been denied a victory in normal time by Sylvain Wiltord's injury-time equaliser. Two years later they went to the World Cup and stumbled out in the second round.

Their coach Giovanni Trapattoni survived that embarrassment as well as the lure of a job offer from Tottenham to bring Italy to Portugal, where they have been bracketed as second favourites, just behind France but just ahead of the likes of Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands.

But the road to Lisbon started here in this medieval city just north of Porto, an ancient but comparatively humble setting given what that banner has in mind, and firstly they had to overcome Denmark, winners of this competition in 1992.

How they set about it was with many faces familiar from four years ago. Fabio Cannavaro, with a shaven head, Alessandro Nesta and Gigi Buffon are the three most important characters at the back and they have lost none of their obduracy. One Buffon save from Jon-Dahl Tomasson underlined why he is thought of as the best goalkeeper in the world.

The bigger problem arises in attack. Trapattoni puts Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti behind Christian Vieri which just becomes a case of too many cooks. This may satisfy the purists who love the idea of attacking football but the way Italy play is about patience and not about building wave after wave of attacks.

Here Del Piero, as he has done for the majority of his eight years with the azzurri, simply disappeared for too much of the game, stationed out on the left. The flair that marked his arrival with Juventus almost 10 years ago has all but gone for a man now aged 29. Totti too is an under-performing enigma although the pair of them were denied by brilliant saves by Thomas Sorensen who also touched a Vieri header over the bar.

More Scandinavians await Italy in the shape of Sweden on Friday before they wrap up their group against Bulgaria but on this evidence France's crown is safe. Lisbon seems a long way away.

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