Italy and France contest the World Cup final in Berlin on Sunday.
The two nations were barely mentioned in the build-up to the finals, but with the likes of Brazil, Argentina and even England, the pre-tournament favourites, falling by the wayside, the final promises to be an intriguing test of Europe’s finest.
The sides have met on 32 occasions with Italy winning 17, drawing eight and losing seven. This will be the fifth World Cup meeting of the pair with Italy winning two to France’s one victory although France did win on penalties at the 1998 World Cup. The game is also a repeat of the Euro 2000 final which France won 2-1 thanks to a Golden Goal from David Trezeguet.
After a slow start France have started to show something of their old form with Zinedine Zidane rolling back the years with some majestic performances.
Italy coach Marcello Lippi believes Zidane’s return to form has been the key factor in France reaching the final.
Zidane, who is to retire after the final, played under Lippi for three years at Juventus.
“France have recovered the best Zidane and have grown through the tournament. Beating Portugal confirmed that they are in top form,” he said.
“Zidane is probably the best player there has been in the past 20 years.”
Italy will be without Alessandro Nesta as he is still struggling with a groin injury. The Milan defender has missed Italy’s last three games and his absence means that Marco Materazzi will continue in defence alongside Italy’s captain Fabio Cannavaro who is in line to win his 100th cap against France.
Cannavaro has been one of the players of the tournament, and his inclusion in the Fifa shortlist for the Golden Ball, alongside teammates Gianluca Zambrotta and Gianluigi Buffon, came as no surprise. It also gives an indication as to where Italy’s strength has been in this World Cup. Defensive solidity lies at the heart of the their approach, providing the foundation for the more attack-minded players to prosper.
Although Daniele De Rossi is available again after serving a four-game ban, the Roma midfielder is likely to start on the bench, with Gennaro Gattuso retaining his place ion the back of some forceful displays in midfield. Gattuso will play alongside Andre Pirlo, who has been at the hub of most of Italy’s creative play in Germany.
Luca Toni is expected to start in attack with Francesco Totti playing just behind him in a withdrawn role. Neither player has been that impressive to date, and if Italy struggle to break France down, then Alberto Gilardino and Alessandro del Piero are waiting on the sidelines.
France are expected to stick with the same side that beat Portugal in Wednesday’s semi-final.
Thierry Henry will again play in a lone striker role, with the energetic Lyon duo Erick Ribery and Florent Malouda, expected to support Henry when France have possession.
At the back, France have been almost as watertight as their opponents, conceding just two goals in six matches. Much of their effectiveness as a unit can be attributed to the experienced pair of Gallas and Thuram, who along with Claude Makelele in the midfield holding role, provide a formidable protective barrier in front of the erratic Fabian Barthez.
In midfield, Patrick Vieira is looking much more like his old self and alongside the Juventus midfielder is of course Zidane, who will be playing his final match of an illustrious career. The playmaker’s renaissance has been one of the features of this tournament, and it is his presence in the final that will sway the support of many neutrals in the crowd.
France coach Raymond Domenech has no doubt that his ageing side can cope with the demands of a seventh match in the space of four weeks.
Domenech was criticised before the tournament for picking several players in his squad over the age of 30, but he has been vindicated by their performances in the knockout stages, and insists that fatigue will not be a factor in the final.
“It’s true that we were wasted after the semi-final, but being tired after a semi-final is normal and we’ll recover,” said Domenech.
“For me, the guys are not old. At 30 or 35 you still follow a preparation and then faith that makes the difference.”
“They must believe what they are doing is meaningful.
“Over six months you can expect players of that age to have problems, but not over a period of a month and seven matches.
“Portugal’s Luis Figo is the same age as Zinedine Zidane and he wasn’t bad on Wednesday. We are not the only team with old players.
“We must not go there with doubts and play a match thinking about what will happen after the match or having mentally already played the final – that happens a lot.”
France: Barthez; Sagnol, Abidal, Thuram, Gallas; Makelele, Vieira, Malouda, Ribery, Zidane; Henry.
Italy: Buffon; Zambrotta, Grosso, Cannavaro, Materazzi; Gattuso, Camoranesi, Pirlo, Perrotta; Totti; Toni.
Referee:: Horacio Elizondo (Argentina)