Old foes scrap for survival
What a difference two years makes. In 2006 Italy overcame France at Berlin’s majestic Olympic stadium to be crowned champions of the world.
Here on Tuesday at Euro 2008 those two same footballing superpowers roll up their sleeves in a back alley scrap for a route out of Group ‘C’ on the heels of already qualified Holland.
The maths is ‘relatively’ straighforward.
Wide margin defeats to the Dutch (3-0 and 4-1 respectively) and 1-1 and 0-0 draws with Romania left Italy and France requiring a win and Holland to beat Romania for one of them to go through as group runners-up.
Given their inferior goal difference that is the only way France can make it.
Italy would still have a chance if they draw with France, and Romania lose, leaving them both with two points.
Here the permutations require the services of a Mensa brain but in a nutshell Italy would go through if they produce a score draw with France.
The reward is a quarter-final date with Group D winners Spain in Vienna next Sunday.
France, whose famed defence, the traditional bedrock of Raymond Domenech’s side, was embarrassingly torn apart by Holland, could welcome back talismanic captain Patrick Vieira who missed the opening two games with a left thigh problem.
Domenech has a real tactical conundrum on his hands as he’s already tried 4-4-2 and 4-3-2-1 with different players - while his opposite number Roberto Donadoni made no fewer than five changes for the Azzurri’s second game against Romania.
Italy would already be down and out if it hadn’t been for keeper Gianluigi Buffon’s heroics in saving a late penalty from Adrian Mutu.
Both sides know each other as well as aged aunts, with France coming out on top when they met in the Euro 2000 final only for Italy to gain handsome compensation in the 2006 World Cup. They were also drawn together in qualifying for this competition.
Thierry Henry, who was deployed as a lone striker in that game, reflecting on the monumental task lying ahead in Zurich, said: “Now we know that we have to beat Italy and hope for good news from the other match. It’s ‘doable’ but it’s going to be a knife edge game with the Italians.
“We still have a possibility of qualifying, we’re not defeated.
“This is not the first time we’ve been in this situation and I hope once more we can lift our heads and get out of it.
“We’ll try and prepare the best possible for Italy.”
Keeper Gregory Coupet, reeling from France’s heaviest loss in almost three decades, said: “We have to lean on the good atmosphere in our group in a bid to bounce back against Italy.”
Chelsea’s Claude Makelele, who picked up a yellow card in Berne on Friday, stressed the need for the squad to remain united. “We have to remain solid and try to go all out in the last game. If we’re going to leave we have to leave with our heads held high.”
Up at their Euro headquarters in Austria Donadoni says he can sense the determination in his players to pull off a houdini-style escape against Les Bleus.
“We have to beat France,” the former AC Milan winger said.
“It is a crucial match because when one still has a chance to qualify you have to push yourself to the limit.
“I saw already at training...that the players are determined to prove how good they are against the French.
“They have a real hunger to prepare in the best possible manner for this challenge, which will dictate whether or not we progress or not.”
He refused to be drawn on whether he would start fiery Sampdoria striker Antonio Cassano after his impressive contribution as a second half substitute against Romania. “It is true each time he has come on he has done well. However, I will decide on that and other things in the coming days. But I do not rule that possibility out, as indeed I don’t others.”