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Next
Jul 8, 2006

The battle of the blues

Zinedine Zidane and France are one step away from footballing immortality. In their way stand an Italy side whose consistency and unexpected attacking verve have seen them installed as slight favourites.

Have Les Bleus' aging stars got one more chef d'oeuvre in them? Here is a look at some key battlegrounds.

THE ZIDANE FACTOR

Only one face appears on the front and back pages of Saturday morning's French newspapers. Zinedine Zidane's popularity is so fervent it seems religious at times, an impression enhanced by L'Equipe's headline on Saturday calling him: 'The Blue Angel'.

He is an idol and a role model. Upon seeing a picture of Zizou enjoying a sneaky cigarette after training before the Portugal, several million French teenagers instantly took up smoking. Or something like that.

To enjoy another Sunday of hero worship, Zidane has to get away from the tenacious, ankle-biting Gennaro Gattuso. If left unchecked, the AC Milan destroyer will pester the great man to within an inch of his life. Gattuso claims there will be no man-to-man marking on Zidane, whom he describes as 'the number one'. Make no mistake, in Berlin he will be number one on Gattuso's hit list.

This means another tour de force is required from Patrick Vieira, whose magnificent tournament has been completely overshadowed by his balding buddy's return to form. But the powerhouse midfielder can buy Zidane time if he continues to make those powerful runs through the middle, giving the Italians something else to think about.

The ideal situation would leave the deep-lying and largely non-tackling Andrea Pirlo isolated against Zidane, but one assumes Marcello Lippi and his men will be too savvy to let that happen.

MOTIVATION

Conventional wisdom would give France the edge here. After all, it's the end of an era, the last time we will ever see Zidane on a football pitch.

Let's leave aside the fact that it's the World Cup final, and any player who is not motivated is probably called Nicolas Anelka. It is not as if Italy have no incentives of their own to perform well.

During the week Marcello Lippi let slip Francesco Totti's imminent international retirement. "As far as I am aware he has said that it is 90 percent sure that he will quit," Lippi commented, before hastily and comedically adding: "However, you have to always wait to find out what is going through people's hearts and minds before commenting."

The number ten has had a rotten time of it at major tournaments, and his lack of fitness following injury has clearly hampered him in Germany. In domestic football he is untouchable, but outside Italy he is seen as a luxury player who will never fulfil his potential.

Does anyone really think Totti has less to play for than the likes of Zidane, Thuram and Barthez, all of whom already have a World Cup-winner's medal and will go down as legends of French football irrespective of the result?

THE COACHES

Raymond Domenech is no master tactician. He changed his starting line-up for each of his first 25 matches as coach before finally stumbling across his best eleven. During matches he spends most of the time sitting impassively while his coaching staff take care of substitutions. In fact, only some hilarious reactions to opposition diving (including a 'Hollywood' filming mime) separate him from Sven-Göran Eriksson.

His biggest contribution was the squad selection, as potential trouble-makers such as Anelka, Robert Pirès, Johan Micoud and Ludovic Giuly were all cast aside. His determination to omit the quartet, even if it meant a shortfall of creative attackers, was indicative of Domemech's desire to create a harmonious and hard-working squad.

Lilian Thuram issued a savage condemnation of the 'lack of discipline' in Jacques Santini's squad at Euro 2004. Now, says Thuram, there is 'humility' and 'team spirit' coursing through the team. On the downside France have taken on a motto whose English translation - 'We live together, we die together' - sounds more like a cheap sitcom about a pair of co-habiting pensioners.

Lippi has instilled team spirit and is one of the great football minds of his generation. He has got Italy playing exciting, positive stuff and showed his utter fearlessness with his changes against Germany in the semi-final. On came attacker after attacker until the Azzurri were playing four up front (Gilardino, Iaquinta, Del Piero, Totti) at the end.

WING COMMANDERS

Of the several Italians who have enjoyed excellent tournaments, Gianluca Zambrotta has been arguably the best. The versatile full-back has hardly put a foot wrong defensively while bombing forward down the flank and contributing to attacks, never more so than when he cut in from the right and thumped home a left-footed piledriver against Ukraine.

Fabio Grosso has been almost as influential from the left-back position, winning the decisive penalty against Australia then curling that superb shot into the corner of the German net to send the Azzurri into the final. Between them, the two provide crucial width and impetus to the Italian attack. Clip their wings, and Lippi's team could struggle.

The way France are set up provides them with a perfect opportunity to pin Zambrotta and Grosso back in their own half. Wide attackers Florent Malouda and Franck Ribéry need to push forward from the off and force the Italian defenders to defend. Of course defending is something they're very good at, but that's a different problem.

THE ITALIAN DEFENCE

Italy's back line has proved all but impregnable in this World Cup. The only time is has been breached was an inside job, when Cristian Zaccardo sliced an intended clearance unstoppably into the corner against the USA. He has played only 13 minutes since. There are no easy ways to score against them, and Zidane will need to be at his lock-picking best to thread his passes beyond the ever-alert Fabio Cannavaro.

Henry's unconventional movement could provide the key. Italy's centre-backs like it when they are marking two strikers yet, with Henry prone to long periods pottering around on the left, there will be times when they are not marking anyone. If the Arsenal captain times his runs to perfection, carries the ball at pace and targets Marco Materazzi, there might just be a way through.

THE BENCHES

The Italy coach has been much more eclectic and inventive with his use of substitutes. Every outfield player has appeared at some point for Italy, while 17 men have played more than 100 minutes in this World Cup. Some would call Lippi a tinkerman, others a genius. Either way, he is a man who tries to read the situation and brings on the appropriate player.

Domenech, by contrast, has stayed faithful to the same three subs; Sylvain Wiltord, Sidney Govou and Louis Saha, who misses the final through suspension. Wiltord is the only player outside the starting 11 to have played more than 100 minutes. Due to their lesser strength in depth, if France's Plan A doesn't work, they could have a serious problem.

THE VERDICT

France to win on penalties after a 1-1 draw, with the winning kick coming from the right boot of a football deity.

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