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Jul 8, 2006

The French Defence

If there is a player in the French side who knows exactly what to expect from his Italian opponents in Sunday's World Cup Final, it is veteran centre-back Lilian Thuram, who for the past decade has starred in Serie A for Parma and now Juventus.

His allegiances to the crisis-torn Turin club mean his long-term club future is very much under a cloud, but this 34-year-old admits his final game on the international stage has been given added spice by the fact that the Azzurri are in opposition.

'Italy is a country that has been very good to me,' begins Thuram. 'It is the place where I matured as a professional footballer and one thing I would never ever do is underestimate their national team. They are very tactically aware, perhaps more than any other country in the world and the only item on the agenda is winning. Nothing else matters to them. They have a habit of pulling out all the stops at just the right moment.

'Add this intense competitiveness to their ingrained defensive ability, the technical skills of a Totti, Pirlo or Del Piero and clinical strikers and you have a team which is a force to be reckoned with. That's why this is the toughest challenge for us.

'On Sunday, I'll be coming up against several Juve team mates and other players whom I've faced on many occasions. Naturally I'm not unfamiliar with the sort of problems Italian forwards can pose to a defender like me. But that doesn't mean that I can afford to relax for a second in Berlin. If I do, I can assure you that the Italians will make me pay.

'I've heard people say we have a big psychological edge because we beat Italy in the Final of Euro 2000 and in a penalty shoot-out at France'98. Believe me those wins will not count for much on Sunday. Another day, another battle. Our great strength is our humility and if we lose that, things will become very complicated.'

A vital cog for Les Bleus when they triumphed at France'98, Thuram's road to Berlin has not been without its twists and turns. After the shock loss to Greece in the quarter-final of Euro 2004, he promptly quit the international stage, only to have second thoughts and return to the fold last summer, bringing his vast experience to bear as Les Bleus recovered from a mediocre start to their World Cup qualifying campaign to clinch their ticket for Germany at the death.

However, not everyone was convinced that Thuram still had something to offer at the highest level. In the latter part of this season, he was a mere bench-warmer at Juventus and for the first time in his career, Gallic critics were on his case, especially pointing to his lack of pace and alleged lapses in concentration early in games.

Indeed after France's turgid display in their World Cup 2006 opener, a goalless draw with Switzerland, several pundits were advocating that he be discarded in favour of Manchester United's Mickael Silvestre.

However, Raymond Domenech, the French boss, stuck by the old-timer and his faith has been richly rewarded. Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry may have hogged the headlines in the knock-out wins over Spain, Brazil and Portugal, but without Thuram's composure, anticipation and strength, it is highly debateable whether France would now be looking forward to their second World Cup Final.

'I'm just glad to be here and am savouring every moment of this World Cup,' says Thuram, who became France's most-capped player of all-time - the Final will be his 121st appearance - in the first round group game against South Korea.

'Apart from my two goals in the 1998 semi against Croatia and parts of our victory over Brazil in the Final, most of my memories of that tournament are a little hazy. I'd like to have some fresher, sharper ones of success in Germany. This tournament has been an extraordinary adventure for us all and we can't stop here.

'I wasn't sure I was doing the right thing when I decided to play for France again. Raymond Domenech had to push me and I'm very glad he did. We have a very united squad, one where everyone is prepared to sacrifice themselves for the good of the team. We're happy to be together. I retired in the first place because at the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004, we weren't a team anymore. There were too many egos. Now it's a quite different story.

'Yes, we struggled at first in this tournament. The fear of us falling at the first hurdle like we did in 2002 was still haunting us, but once we made it to the last-16, it was as if a huge weight had been taken from us. We've been more at ease and have got better and better.'

Certainly it's hard to believe that Thuram and his central defensive partner William Gallas have only been playing together since the eve of this World Cup. For a long while, Raymond Domenech thought it best to use Gallas at left-back, but with Newcastle stopper Jean-Alain Boumsong singularly failing to cut it in the Premiership, the logical move was to switch the Chelsea man to the heart of the back-four.

'Lilian and I had a few hairy moments to begin with,' says Gallas. 'But we communicate well with each other and seem to be on the same wavelength now. It's easy to play with someone of Lilian's class and experience. I've learnt a lot from him.

'For instance his positional sense, the way he closes down attackers and breaks up attacking moves. He's also taught me to always be ready to listen to the coach and team mates. He's a great pro. He prepares meticulously for a game on the training ground.

Certain Italian players have declared France to be the Final favourites. Gallas begs to differ. 'I'd rate it a 50-50 game. Italy are strong all over the pitch and showed their mental toughness by beating hosts Germany in the semis.

'Italy deserves to be in the Final. They know how to win big games. Even when you think you have them cornered, they have the ability to hurt you at any moment. It's going to be an intense game. It's up to us to be patient and look for the openings which could set up the win.

'I know many in France are comparing us to the team which won in 1998. That's to be expected. Like back then, we have a very compact team and are hard to break down. We also have the great Zidane, but we haven't equalled their achievements yet. One more good performance and we can celebrate. Not before. My dream as a kid was to play in a World Cup Final one day. Now I'm going to fulfil it, but to take part is not enough. Victory is what we're after.'

It is normally the Azzurri's defensive qualities that grab the headlines, but just for once, their Gallic rivals can claim to have a similarly watertight rearguard.


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