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Italians set to ruin Zidane's retirement party

The Real Madrid playmaker, who scored with two headers to clinch the 1998 Cup from Brazil, will ask his aching legs for one last effort on Sunday.

india Updated: Jul 08, 2006 13:17 IST

The perfect way for Zinedine Zidane to end a stellar career is to take home another World Cup winner's medal eight years after the first.

Italy will make sure he doesn't.

Berlin's Olympic Stadium saw one of sport's greatest achievements 70 years ago when Jesse Owens sprinted to four Olympic gold medals. If France beats Italy on Sunday, Zidane's performance in winning a trophy at age 34 in his very last game before retirement won't be far behind.

The Real Madrid playmaker, which scored with two headers when France beat Brazil in the 1998 final near Paris, will ask his aching legs for one last effort on Sunday.

So far they have not let him down and Zidane, whose performances for Madrid have been well below his usual level, has recaptured some of the form that made him the game's best player five years ago.

With his retirement immediately following the final whistle on Sunday, a huge wave of emotion will pour out whatever the result. If France wins its second World Cup title and denies Italy its fourth, it will be one of the greatest stories in soccer history.

Its likely Zidane will go into a retirement a loser, however, emotion and nostalgia don't win soccer games, especially World Cup finals, especially against the Italians.

Zidane and the rest of his French teammates face an Azzurri team that is playing extremely well.

In true Italian style, the team has conceded only one goal in its six games and that was by one of its own players, defender Cristian Zaccardo in the 1-1 draw with the United States, a group game in which three players were sent off in the first 49 minutes.

Italy beat the talented Czech Republic 2-0; Australia 1-0 thanks to an injury-time penalty kick by Francesco Totti; Ukraine 3-0; and Germany 2-0, with both goals in the last two minutes of extra time.

The Azzurri play strong in every minute of every game. The back six - four defenders plus workaholic midfielders Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso - work efficiently as a unit.

Although Alessandro Nesta has been missing nearly the whole way with a thigh injury and is out of the final, Marco Materazzi has been a standout replacement, along with probably the best defender in the championship, Italy's captain Fabio Cannavaro.

Behind them, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has made reflex-action blocks and acrobatic tip-over whenever the defense has been breached.

That's what France has to beat in Berlin on Sunday. Maybe only stars of the caliber of Zidane and Thierry Henry are capable of it.

Zidane has shown plenty of his on-the-ball trickery: the stepovers, the sideways twists and spins past defenders and the instinctive first-time passes that pull defenses apart. But, if any defense is prepared for them, it is Italy's.

Gattuso, one of the most fearsome and effective tacklers in the game, won't be far from Zidane and will deny him time on the ball. Cannavaro and Matarezzi will block the way to Henry, who hasn't produced his best form so far.

Maybe he's saving it for the final, which isn't usually his way. The Arsenal striker has a habit of not performing in the big games and Italy plans to make sure that reputation remains.

France goalkeeper Fabien Barthez is another throwback to that final of 1998 and European Championship triumph of 2000. Yet, despite his vast experience at the top level, he still seems to forget that his hands are there to catch the ball rather than punch it away.

Barthez came up with one of the most bizarre saves in World Cup history in the 1-0 semifinal victory over Portugal. He reacted to a straightforward shot he should have caught by pushing it upward volleyball style with his lower arms.

It handed Portugal's Luis Figo an easy chance to equalize, but he headed over the bar. Italy's Totti and Luca Toni won't let him off so lightly, although they won't be allowed many chances by a well-organized French back line in which Lilian Thuram, another World Cup winner from 1998, has rivaled Cannavaro.

Like the Italian formation, France has the vastly experienced Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira in front of its defense to cut off the flow of Italian passes and allow Zidane the freedom to try and run the midfield.

Zidane, Makelele and Thuram came out of international retirement to lift an ailing French team and try and win another World Cup. There are several reasons they will fail.

Quite apart from the fact that Italy's overall form is better, there is a force driving the team on that has nothing to do with the events at Germany 2006.

Back home, a trial on match-fixing allegations involving four of Italy's top clubs - Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio - has those teams facing demotion if it's proven they colluded with referees.

Maybe if that investigation weren't happening, Italy might not be so motivated to win. Italy coach Marcello Lippi was in charge of Juve when the match-fixing incidents were alleged to have happened and has given evidence to investigators explaining his innocence.

If Lippi is crying Sunday when Italy wins the final 2-0, they will be tears of joy. The emotions for Zidane will be far less happy.