Saturday, July 08, 2006

World Cup Finals, the last dance for Germany 2006

We have finally made it to the final weekend for the World Cup. Starting out over a month ago we have been privy to the greatest sporting event in the world, bigger than the Champions League, Olympics, Super Bowl, World Series, Daytona 500, or the Coney Island Hot Dog eating contest. Of course had you told me we would have these two teams playing for the title I might have agreed with Italy, but would not have allowed myself to dream of France being there as well...just read my June 18th post -

"Finals - similar to 1978 Argentina plays Holland
Third Place game - Spain vs Czech Rep"

With Holland winning its first title....well I guess I should not quite my job and try to live off gambling on the horses. Argentina lost in the 1/4 finals, Holland could barely threaten the opposition's goal and fell out in 1/8 finals, Spain fell to the Master Zidane in the same round, and the Czechs did not make it out of the group stages.

So let us now focus on what we have - France vs Italia. Two eurpean neighbors with a long history on and off the field. I will not rehash the past, the 2000 Euro Finals, the 1998 1/4 finals, the 1986 1/8 finals, or the 1975 group game. Needless to say that these teams know each other and have had many a classic battle in the past, no reason to believe this will be any different.

Italia: This team has progressed into the finals emerging from what was deemed the group of death. They did enough to beat Ghana, got caught in an ugly game against the americans, and defeated a tired and old looking Czech team. They were fortunate in the knock out draw getting Australia, winning on a very questionable PK in injury time, and then facing surprise Ukraine (thanks to France playing lackluster football the first 2 weeks the Swiss were the team that were tasked to stop the Ukrainian juggernaut in the 1/8 finals, which they did not). The Italians then faced a German team playing above themselves at home, and fought out a hard earned victory after the Italians dominated on the stat sheet through out the game.

Italy has been rock solid in goal and the defense has lived up to its billing, having only conceded one goal, and that on an own goal. Cannavaro has been nothing short of spectacular in the back. Gattuso has lived up to his "snarling dog" moniker. And Toti, Pirlo and Toni have done enough to get the goals when need be. Lippi has also developed a good rotation for his forwards during the game, keeping the offensive pressure on teams, something you would not have seen from past Italian teams.

France: France played some of the most uninspired football the first two games. They were really 45 minutes away from going home until Pat Vieira woke up the French with an inspired second half performance against Togo. They then experienced a motivated Zidane against Spain and Brazil. And slugged it out with Portugal, doing the bare minimum to get through.

France has been questionable in goal, although for part of the semi final, Barthez looked like the old solid Barthez. While he can be a clown at times, he remains a big game keeper for club and country. Hard to forget his amazing save early in the 1998 world cup final against Brazil off a corner. The one thing I like about Barthez is he never really seems rattled, while he sometimes acts too casually he never gets rattled. Many talk about the job Cannavaro has done but I would point to who I think is central midfield 1A - Lilian Thuram. He has been an absolute rock. Unlike Desailly in Euro 2004, who was playing one tournament too many, Thuram has demonstrated an intelligence, understanding, and atheletic ability to control the french back four. His understanding with Gallas has been nothing short of amazing in such a short time. While he no longer has the speed he once had, he uses his intelligence to position himself where he needs to be...just like Cannavaro. I think that without the fear of Yellow cards, Vieira will be back as the hard man in the middle of the pitch. I really think that fear of getting his second yellow card of the knock out stage reigned in his usual aggression against Portugal. Zidane looked tired against Portugal, but he too was looking at missing the finals had he received another yellow, but he still defended and did enough to ensure a french victory.

I think that Italy enters this game a slight favorite on the strength of Cannavaro and Buffon. However I think the game will be very tight, possibly a 1-0 game maybe 2-0. I think that France and Italy match up well with one another.

I think France has some tricks - Zidane will throw everything he has in this game, much like the Brazil game. Italy knows this and I think that gives French a possible pyschological advantage. Ribery and Malouda could give the Italian wings problems. Italy had some difficulty handling the speed from Ghana as well as the US on the flanks. Italy will have its hands full with Henry, they are very good at defending strikers like Klose, Podolski, McBride, etc. Strikers that make their living inside the 18 yard box. Stikers who need to have the ball served into the 18 and can create, pounce on loose balls, score with their heads, etc. The Italian defense is world class at clogging the 18 yard box, and denying any entry passes. I am not convinced they are as good when it comes to stopping speedy strikers from running at them.

The Italian strikers will give France trouble because players like Toni are great in the air, and Toti and Pirlo can find them from anywhere on the pitch. The Italians also have the ability to clog the midfield, really slowing down the speed of Ribery, Malouda and Henry. I also think Italy has a great wild card to use late and that is Del Piero. Ever game he has come into he has proven to be a great spark for the attack.

Before the tournament I thought that these two teams would meet in the 1/4 finals (both being group winners). Of course France decided it rather take the path of most resistence to get to the finals. This game is going to be very tight. I think we could see a scoreless first half and a late second half goal. I think that Makelele - Vieira, in front of Sagnol, Thuram, Gallas, Abidal and an inspired Zidane...wills France to a victory.

France 1 Italy 0

Ribery (77)

Allez les Bleus!!!!!!!!!!

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