Two years ago, Italy and France were in Berlin, playing for the World Cup. Now they are playing each other for a crucial second place in the Euro 2008 qualification, having to count on the Romanians losing to the reserves of majestic Holland.
What has happened to these two football superpowers? France lost Zinadine Zidane to retirement. Without doubt the greatest French and possibly European player of his generation, Zidane led the French to one World Cup and a European championship.
Italy has the second oldest team in the league. Barzagli is their youngest player at 27.
Their coach is also the most inexperienced among all the coaches in Euro 2008, his only experience being that of coaching modest Livorno for one season. And it shows in the constant and inaccurate changes of formation in every game. The over-thirty crowd of Henry, Thuram, Pirlo, Toni, Buffon, Anelka, Gattuso, Pannucci, Del Piero and Vieira will have to dig deep to squeeze out one more spectacular game from their outstanding careers.
It is rumored that Donadoni is planning to leave out Pirlo, Italy's best player so far, and bring in Cassano, Di Natale, and Gattuso. Donadoni’s ability to leave out the best, for example Grosso in the first game and bring in the worst, like Del Piero in the second borders on the suicidal.
However, the formation should look something like this: Saint Buffon in goal, Grosso on the left, Pannucci and Chiellini in the middle defence, and Zambrotta on the right. In midfield, I hope to see Pirlo but it could be Gattuso, De Rossi, and Camoranesi. Up front, Cassano will start with Toni and Di Natale, a three-man front line.
France has called up Vieira to save them once again. Domenech knows that this could be his last game as coach of Les Bleus. He pays for a certain reluctance to go with his young talents of Benzema, Nasri and Govou but especially for losing Zidane to retirement.
France will rest Thuram and start Coupet in goal, Evra, Abidal, Gallas and Diarra in defence. Makele and Vieira will run the defensive midfield with Benzema, Ribery and Govou the offensive midfield. Henry will be centre forward.
Italy needs to score. Its only goal has been a defender's — Panucci. France needs to impose its midfield on the Italians and hope Henry can overrun a weak centre line of the Azzurri. Grosso could well make the difference with his runs on the left side and multitude of crosses that Toni has been unable to convert.
Talents like Ribery and Benzema might well explode out of a Euro constipation. A tie would not serve either team, so look for an exciting back and forth game, with chances on goal. The only surety that neither Donadoni nor Domenech will be around after Euro 2008.The group of Death has meant football death to them.
Don’t underestimate Romania
Much has been said of Holland losing to Romania on purpose so they qualify and France and Italy are eliminated. The only people saying this are the French and Italians. The Dutch have shown the best and most exciting soccer in this championship.
Van Basten has said the players who are not tired will play, but he won't risk Robben. Romania was excellent against Italy and have one of the best midfields in the tournament. They have a world-class player in Adrian Mutu, penalty notwithstanding, and are motivated.
In 10 matches aqainst Romania, Holland has won six, tied three and lost only once. For sure Van der Saar will be in goal, Ooijer, Mathijsen and Heitinga will lead the defence.
Van Persie will deservedly start for the first time, Van Bronckhorst, De Zeeuw, with Boulahrouz and the phenomenal Wesley Sneijder. Up front, we could well see goal scorer Huntelaar replace a tired Van Nistelrooy for his first game of this championship.
As for the Romanian formation, look for the excellent Lubont in goal, Contra, Tamas and Goian in defence. Rat, Nicolita, Cocis, Codrea and Radoi in midfield, with Niculae and Mutu up front.
Romania's midfield is excellent, one of the best in the tournament and put Italy in great difficulty.
Depending on whom the Dutch play, this will be a fun game to watch. Romania has to win. The Dutch hate to lose even at ping-pong.