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France must shake-off laissez-faire attitude to upset Italian solidarity

Kevin McCarra in Munich
Friday July 7, 2006
The Guardian



As France's players rejoiced at full-time in Munich, even well-wishers felt ambivalent. Their 1-0 victory over Portugal had people wondering whether the revival of Raymond Domenech's team, with its complement of veterans, can resume in Sunday's final.
There is as much chance that those watching a great generation of players will hear the last post rather than a last hurrah. The possibility of defeat would have been strong in any case because Italy are well-equipped and have so intense a focus that they barely noticed the passion of a hostile German crowd when they beat the host nation on Tuesday.
France will be embattled if their supreme effort in this tournament is already behind them. Their performance needs to be on a wholly different level from the one that was enough to eliminate Portugal on Wednesday. Domenech's side understand what is required, having delivered it in the 1-0 win over Brazil, but admirers fear that such a showing was a flaring of elderly talent just before total burn-out.
Regular watchers of France think that Zinédine Zidane's display in the quarter-final was among the two or three best he has ever given. His own comments encouraged people to trust that the 34-year-old had turned away from dysfunctional Real Madrid this season and applied himself solely to ending his career in grandeur at the World Cup finals.

Considering the size of the pay cheque, his employers at the Bernabéu are entitled to take umbrage at such an idea, but, despite a good spell at the start of this year, it did look as if Zidane had tacitly terminated his club career. At the Olympiastadion we will learn how much stamina, suppleness and vivacity the inspiration of the team has been able to conserve.

France were at their peak in Euro 2000, yet would have deserved defeat by Italy in the final that seemed certain until the pinpoint finish by Sylvain Wiltord for a very late equaliser. They had better assume that such resourcefulness will be essential against Marcello Lippi's team on Sunday night. The reasons for Italy's current unbeaten run of 24 matches have become disturbingly obvious to rivals. Chances are made regularly and the defence has only been broken once at this World Cup, when Cristian Zaccardo produced a precise if inadvertent volley for an own-goal in the 1-1 draw with the United States.

Italy bear no resemblance to Portugal. Luiz Felipe Scolari could not add to his run, begun with Brazil, of 12 consecutive wins at World Cup finals, but there was even more awe for the sequence in the wake of Wednesday's loss. How on earth had he nudged Portugal towards so many wins in the first place when there is a vacuum in attack?

Lilian Thuram was outstanding in France's back four but he was never put under the kind of pressure that could have reminded anyone that he was vulnerable enough to be dropped by Juventus for the return leg of the Champions League quarter-final with Arsenal. Thuram, 34, is one of several Frenchmen who will have to roll back the years if they are to repel Italy.

The most benevolent interpretation of Wednesday's game would be that Domenech's side knew how harmless Portugal were and simply preferred to be conservative and see out the 90 minutes. It has to be doubted, though, that they would have had the energy to react had Luis Figo equalised when Fabién Barthez knocked a dipping free-kick from Cristiano Ronaldo into the air. The laissezfaire approach will not do on Sunday.

Those five players who are trudging a path through their thirties have to be as vivacious as they were when facing Brazil. Maybe willpower and the exhilaration of a World Cup final will see them pull off the transformation one last time. In theory Italy are better equipped in most areas, with superior figures on the bench as well.

To overcome that, France must pray that several players surpass themselves and, in particular, hope Italy do not expose the weaknesses of the left-back Eric Abidal that Figo and Ronaldo demonstrated occasionally. In view of the system that Domenech has settled on Thierry Henry, as solo striker, has the forbidding assignment of unsettling Fabio Cannavaro, so far the best centre-half at the tournament.

Arsenal's captain hopefully refers to the final as "a remake of Euro 2000". He encouraged himself with the recollection that "against Italian teams in the Champions League I don't have trouble scoring". He has punished Roma and Internazionale but will dwell particularly on his goal when Cannavaro's Juventus were at Highbury in March. "A month ago it was the Champions League final," he said of the defeat by Barcelona. "Now it's the World Cup final. It's amazing. But this time I want the right ending."

He and the even more senior France players must revitalise themselves all over again if that is to happen.


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