Italy Tops France in Battle of Aging Heavyweights

(Soccer365’s Martin North) France and Italy must be sick of each other. Eight years ago, France prevailed when they met in the final of Euro 2000. Six years later, Italy had the ultimate revenge in Berlin.

The two giants were drawn together in qualifying for Euro 2008 then found themselves in the same finals group, the so-called “Group of Death.” Both were still expected to qualify mind you.

Unfortunately for the French, Holland and Romania had other ideas. Both conspired to foil the favorites in very different ways. Where Romania stifled, the Dutch overwhelmed.

The flowing football of a youthful Holland team has been in stark contrast to the stodgy fare served up by aging French and Italian squads. Crushing defeats to Van Basten’s Orange Swarm had Domenech and Donadoni not only fighting for Euro survival, but also their jobs.

So instead of a procession, yesterday’s latest installment of the French-Italian rivalry became a winner-takes-all showdown. It was France who flinched first.

The loss of Franck Ribery to injury after only 10 minutes was painful enough. Eric Abidal’s clumsy challenge on Luca Toni and subsequent dismissal was a mortal wound from which there would be no Gallic recovery.

Andrea Pirlo dispatched the resulting penalty with characteristic precision. It was his delightfully weighted pass that had released Toni behind the French defence, one of several chances Pirlo provided for his misfiring striker.

In fact, had Abidal not dived in so recklessly, Toni would probably have missed given his current form. He is yet to score in the tournament despite playing 90 minutes in all three group games. Of his 12 shots to date, only 3 have been on target.

Spain’s David Villa, who the Azzurri will now meet in the Quarter-finals, has already scored 4 goals from 11 shots in only 2 games.

On yesterday’s showing, beating Spain will require substantial improvement. The defence remains a work in progress – Zambrotta and Grosso are first-rate full-backs but Xavi, Iniesta and Co. will fancy their chances of unlocking a Chiellini/Panucci partnership in the center.

They weren’t overly troubled by the French attack. Thierry Henry pouted but his most significant contribution was a toe poke that deflected Daniele De Rossi’s free kick into his own net. Despite a disappointing debut season at the Nou Camp, Henry appears to have a future at Barcelona. Whether his international career continues all the way to South Africa must now be in doubt.

Apart from Karim Benzema, there are no obvious candidates to replace Henry for Les Bleus. Benzema huffed and puffed but too often he found himself playing in the hole while Henry spearheaded the attack.

Surely the pair would have been more effective in the opposite positions. Henry’s creativity should have thrived in the space and channels created by Benzema smash-and-grab ability stretching the field. Instead, Henry led the line and Benzema lacked the maturity and guile to fashion clear-cut openings for his Captain.

Only Domenech knows why these roles weren’t reversed. There will undoubtedly be calls for his resignation following a departure that rivals the 2002 World Cup in terms of embarrassment. Claude Makelele has already announced his international retirement and more will follow. After scoring only one goal in three games, an introduction of new blood from Clairefontaine is desperately required, especially in attack.

Italy benefited greatly from their own injection of youth. De Rossi’s box-to-box energy gives the Azzurri engine room increased horsepower. The Roma midfielder’s forcefulness is a nice complement to the elegance of Pirlo. His presence, alongside the snapping Gennaro Gattuso, will be crucial if Italy hope to limit the space in which Spain’s creative midfielders operate.

If they can disrupt the Spanish rhythm, and if Toni finally finds his shooting boots, Italy could face a rematch with Holland in the Semi-finals. Their experience will be invaluable as the tournament progresses, but will this prove to be a tournament too far for the World Champions?

The average age of their starting line-up against France was 28.9. Compare that with the Dutch, who comfortably beat Romania with a back-up team aged 25.5.

But have the Dutch peaked too soon? Since the Group format began in 1980, only once – France in 1984 – has team won every game on its way to the trophy. Holland will certainly take some stopping. At present they are a quite irresistible force – 9 goals in the Group stage is a feat equaled only by, yep you guessed it, The Platini-led French in 1984.

If they do meet again, Holland vs. Italy will be a classic duel between youthful urgency and veteran endurance. The pace-making Dutch have the legs for a sprint; Italian hopes depend on outlasting them in the ensuing marathon.

by Martin North


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