Franck Ribéry and Luca Toni were right: Tuesday’s match between France and Italy has all the marks of a grand final.
On paper, two of the strongest teams in the footy world. Mutual respect, but also a great history and rivarly extending throughout the years: epic battles lost & won, the most recent of which took place only 2 years ago on the biggest stage that any sporting event could wish for: a FIFA World Cup final!
On that day (July 9, 2006), Italy and France competed with a mathematical certainty: there would be a winner that night, and one of them would be walking away with glory. On Tuesday, the two World Cup finalists will be competing to stay alive. And at the end of the day, there’s a very real possibility both will be walking away in shame. Defeated. But it is something neither of them prefers to think about and frankly, neither do we.
Through history, Italy and France played each other only once during European Championship finals, and that is a match many Azzurri fans would rather not remember (July 2, Euro 2000 final in Rotterdam, Netherlands). In total, the two teams have played 35 matches together (5 World Cups, 1 Euro Cup, 2 Euro Cup qualifiers, 2 Olympic games, 24 friendlies, 1 Tournoi de France), with Italy winning 17, tying 10, and losing 8 (74-48 the goal differential).
Note that Italy have not beaten France since June 2, 1978, when the Azzurri were victorious over Les Bleus at Mar del Plata, for the first group stage match of the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. Since then the two countries played each other 9 times, with France obtaining 5 wins and 4 draws (the most notable of which was the World Cup 2006 final which, for statistical purposes, ended 1-1 after extra time).
Head-to-head France vs. Italy
|Biggest win France|
|Biggest win Italy|
(From La Gazzetta): ZURICH, 16 June 2008 – “The match is tomorrow.” Four words that reveal Roberto Donadoni’s passion. The usually calm Italian manager looks exhausted, almost alone in the midst of the storm. Yes, tomorrow is “the match“, and the Azzurri will play it with one regret: “We won’t be the masters of our own destiny.”
The coach believes in his own heart: and so do all the Azzurri. There is France on one side, and then… another match. And there’s also the future: Donadoni doesn’t want to cut the Azzurri’s horizon short. “No, I haven’t packed my suitcase yet in Baden.” he says. The suitcases are all there and there is always time to pack them. Right now, we are thinking about something else.”
CASSANO? – Unlike the eve of the match against Romania, Donadoni doesn’t want to reveal his line-up. “You want to know if Antonio is playing? This time, I won’t say anything. I’ve pretty much made up my mind on the line-up, but I will give it the final touch tomorrow morning.”
According to La Repubblica, one of the possible solutions to complete the Cassano-Toni pair would be Mauro Camoranesi, one of the players still in need to impress at Euro 2008. “He recuperated just like the others, although those that played longer are also subject to a certain mental fatigue” admitted Donadoni. Kinda like saying the Italo-Argentine could be facing some bench time on Tuesday. The alternative to Camoranesi is Antonio Di Natale, in better physical shape but with lower defensive abilities.
The defensive & covering tasks would be therefore left to the likes of De Rossi, Gattuso, and Ambrosini (currently the midfield trio most likely to start vs. France). Andrea Pirlo would thus be relegated to the bench, in part because of his co-existence problems with De Rossi against Romania. “I will be on the field tomorrow” said however Pirlo on Monday, very convincingly. As for the defense, there is little doubt that the same back four we saw against Romania (Zambrotta, Panucci, Chiellini and Grosso) will all get a start vs. France also.
Zambrotta, Panucci, Chiellini, Grosso
Gattuso, De Rossi, Ambrosini
Cassano, Toni, Di Natale
As for Donadoni, the Italian manager is at a crossroads: in or out? Dreaming of Vienna, the Prater and the Quarter-finals, the Don tries to put his feelings into words. “What can I tell you? That our burden is as big as the will to win. It’s a nice match to play and everyone would like to play it.” The coach has some precise convictions: “The winner tomorrow will be whoever thinks more about their own match.” He has given the players a brief but clear message: “We shall not focus on whatever doesn’t concern us… France should be the only thing on our minds.”
THE FINAL – The Netherlands are another reality, one hour away by car. That’s where the fate of three national teams will be decided. Romania, Italy or France? Donadoni looks straight ahead and reiterates: “We are ready, we know what we are playing for: tomorrow we will give everything we have, body and soul.” Almost like another final.
RISK- For the Azzurri to play to the best of their abilities, Donadoni will need to ignite the flame of passion in his players. Rational plays, but also some craziness & creativity coupled with a little bit of spunk: the Cassano solution. The Don is quiet about it: “You will see tomorrow. I am not saying anything.” But then, he opens a small window to deductions: “We have played with three strikers before, in other circumstances. I think I have always selected a balanced team.” Undeniable, but what about France? The coach hands it in: “I think these are matches where it’s necessary to take just a few extra chances.”
(From La Repubblica): Rome is crying about the Azzurri, but Paris isn’t laughing about Les Bleus either. Roberto Donadoni and Raymond Domenech have, believe it or not, many things in common as they approach the France vs. Italy match. Both managers will lose their jobs if their team is eliminated, both have made certain tactical choices which have been strongly criticized by the press, and both have been struggling with key injuries within their team (Italy have Fabio Cannavaro, France have Patrick Vieira).
However, the mood of Chatel Saint Denis (France’s training facility) is probably even more sombre than that of Casa Azzurri right now. The French press did not see France’s 0-0 draw vs. Romania with a kind eye, but they went absolutely ballistic after Les Bleus got steamrolled by Netherlands on matchday 2. In particular, Domenech’s choices to leave Karim Benzema out and “Granpa” Lilian Thuram (age 36 and a half) in were heavily criticized in the hexagon. The 21 year-old Lyon striker is seen by many as a rising star of the French team, but was left out in favor of a 4-2-3-1 formation including Govou, Malouda, and Ribéry in support of Henry. With his team down by two goals, the French coach still preferred to leave Benzema out, choosing the likes of Bafétimbi Gomis and Nicolas Anelka instead.
As for France’s 36 year-old captain, French sports newspaper L’Équipe simply defined his performance as “worrisome“. Some even postulated the old Parma and Juve defender could be left out of the anti-Italy line-up, an hypothesis which however seems unlikely, given the knock picked up by the other starting center-back William Gallas. Thuram himself, although acknowledging his poor performance vs. Holland, declared to be sure of playing against the Azzurri. “This isn’t the first national team match in which I played badly, you just can’t remain among the very best for too many years” Thuram said. “However, our performance against Netherlands will be a bad memory, and nothing more.” The Barcelona center-back added he wants to be part of the eleven vs. Italy at all costs, stating that “The contrary would be very serious“.
According to L’Équipe, this is the expected formation for Tuesday:
Clerc (or Sagnol), Gallas, Thuram (or Abidal), Evra
Govou, Makelele (or L.Diarra), Toulalan, Ribéry
Thus despite Thuram’s convictions, it would not be surprising to see all of Sagnol, Thuram, Makelele and Malouda be relegated to the bench on Tuesday, as the French coach revolutionizes his back-line. Raymond Domenech tested several alternative formations during Monday’s training at Chatel Saint Denis, one of which being Franck Ribéry in a left-winger role (a position he is accustomed to with Bayern). In turn, Sydney Govou would take Ribéry’s place on the right, and the two wingers would then work to support lone striking pair Henry-Benzema.
But going back to Domenech, another source of criticism for the French coach was his decision to keep Patrick Vieira in the roster, despite the midfielder’s injury struggle. Many would have preferred to see talented ex-Arsenal youngster Mathieu Flamini, who was ready for action and called up as a precautionary measure, but was then sent home in the hopes of seeing Vieira get better (something which at this point, will probably not take place).
In other words, tension and problems aren’t what’s lacking in the French roster, but Bayern midfielder Franck Ribery (one of those who created so many problems to the Italian defense back in 2006) swears France is ready to turn the page. “We are feeling much better now compared, to the immediate moments after the loss vs. Netherlands. We suffered a very heavy loss despite playing a good match, and we all gathered together to talk about it. To clarify that our Euro 2008 adventure is not over since we still have a small chance of making it to the next round. We will play our chances to the end, we must believe in it, otherwise there’s no point in playing“.
France vs. Italy, kick-off time 20:45 CET