World Cup 98: Italy punish Norway for their negative approach

Italy 1 Vieri 18 Norway 0 Att: 60,000
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The Independent Online
AS MEMBERS of one select band, the six nations who have won the World Cup, Italy will not be boasting about having joined Australia and South Korea in another, comprising the only teams to have beaten Norway in 30 internationals dating back two and a half years. Nevertheless, France 98 owes them a debut of gratitude.

Christian Vieri's early goal did more than validate an exemplary tactical game by an Italian side who gave the impression of holding something in reserve. It also ensured that Norway's relentlessly negative strategy, which was as guileless as their coach, Egil Olsen, was graceless in defeat, will not trouble the finals further.

After the last match of his eight-year reign, Olsen used the verbal equivalent of his team's long-ball game to dismiss Italy afterwards. "They are a bad team," he said. "They are mediocre, and we should have done better."

Did he defend his decision to play a solitary striker? "Yes," he snapped before turning on his heels in transparent contempt of the question. Maybe it is as well that Olsen says he has rejected the offer he claims to have received from Celtic - Old Firm fixtures tend to be more heated affairs than this.

With victory secure, Cesare Maldini saw no need to be drawn into conflict with his counterpart. Norway, he said, had been very hard to beat. His son and captain, Paolo, seemed amused by the criticism responding with a rhetorical question: "We might be [a bad team], but who's in the next round?"

The Italians were baffled by Norway's approach, Maldini Jnr explained. "I don't understand them. They were 1-0 down and still didn't want to come out and play. Did they expect us to attack them when we were winning? Do they think we are stupid? At this stage, one team stays and the other goes home. We tried to win more than them."

Giuseppe Bergomi, a World Cup winner 16 years ago, and back in defence at the age of 34, shared his colleague's disdain. "Norway are not a football team. They don't play what I call football", he said in a matter-of-fact manner."

Since they are out, let us not dwell too long on Norway. In brief mitigation of Olsen, he has given his country's football a higher profile than ever, less than 20 years after the parliament in Oslo debated disbanding the national side because they were so bad.

Whether reaching the last 16 justifies the numbing one-dimensionality of it all, must, however, be doubtful. For an academic who is reputedly keen on Camus, Sartre and Kierkegaard, Olsen's football philosophy denies full rein to the imagination of a talented squad.

But what of the Azzurri? Three weeks into the tournament, we are no clearer as to whether they are potential champions again; or whether the weaknesses which made their qualifying process so fraught will resurface. Luigi Riva, the Vieri of the side who lost the great 1970 final to Brazil, now chain- smokes for Italy in his role as a `team companion'. He considered they were getting a little better with each match. "But", he added, "They can still improve a lot further."

They were seldom obliged to move into overdrive or placed under intense pressure during their group fixtures, and Norway were either unwilling or unable to push them to the limits on this occasion.

What is evident is that however workmanlike Italy may be in midfield - with the exception of the blossoming Luigi Di Biagio - and for all their spasms of uncertainty at the back, they possess the best striking partnership in the competition. Ronaldo and possibly Oliver Bierhoff maybe better individually, but there is no more dangerous duo than Vieri and Alessandro Del Piero.

Vieri, bursting on to Di Biagio's pass 40 yards from goal, displayed awesome upper-body strength to resist Den Eggen's challenge before burying his fifth goal of the finals with exquisite precision. One British newspaper reported that Aston Villa were offering Stan Collymore to Atletico Madrid in exchange for Vieri. They could throw in the rest of the squad and Doug Ellis's Rolls and still not come close.

Del Piero was an elusive and inventive foil. To watch them in full cry and to see a substitute of the quality of Roberto Baggio standing by, is to be reminded of why the coach felt he did not need Gianfranco Zola or Pierlugi Casiraghi.

Norway had their moments, usually when Erik Mykland and Kjetil Rekdal played through rather than over the Italians. Yet they tested Gianluca Pagliuca at close range only once, the keeper saving brilliantly from Tor Andre Flo's header when the Chelsea beanpole finally escaped the diminutive Fabio Cannavaro 19 minutes from time.

Manchester United's Henning Berg later argued that if his compatriots had played like they did against Brazil Italy's tendency to defend too deep and leave space in midfield would have been punished. "France are the better side", he insisted, "And I think they'll beat them." The whiff of sour grapes was in the air - which is, after all, where Norway are happiest.

ITALY (4-4-2): Pagliuca (Internazionale); Costacurta (Milan), Bergomi (Internazionale), Cannavaro (Parma) Maldini (Milan); Moriero (Internazionale), Albertini (Milan), Di Biagio (Roma), D Baggio (Parma); Vieri (Atletico), Del Piero (Juventus). Substitutes: Di Livio (Juventus) for Moriero, 62; Pessotto (Juventus) for Albertini, 72; Chiesa (Parma) for Del Piero 77.

Norway (4-5-1): Grodas (Tottenham); Berg (Manchester United), Eggen (Celta Vigo), Johnsen (Manchester United), Bjornebye (Liverpool); H Flo (Werder Bremen), Mykland (Panathinaikos), Rekdal (Hertha Berlin), Leonhardsen (Liverpool), Riseth (Linz ASK); T A Flo (Chelsea). Substitutes: Strand (Rosenborg Trondheim) for Leonharddsen, 13; Solbakken (Aalborg) for Strand, 39; Solskjaer (Manchester United) for H Flo, 73.

Referee: B Heynemann (Germany).