In less than 8 hours from now, the final of the FIFA World Cup 2006 would have kicked off. France and Italy will clash to take the top honours in this most prestigious of competitions. An estimated audience of over one billion will watch the game live on TV. This is in addition to the many thousands who would throng town squares across the world.
France and Italy were both unfancied at the start of the World Cup. Whereas punters' favourties like Brazil, Argentina and England were knocked out at the last-eight stage, hosts Germany were beaten by Italy in a tense semifinal -- a clash worthy of the final itself.
Thw two finalists both play the 4-5-1 system. However, the styles are quite different. Italy, surprisingly, play the more attacking type of football. With full-backs who can be effective in the wings, and with Totti, a natural striker, who plays in the midfield, and Pirlo who can send searching balls upfield, and Gattuso who will throw himself around to win balls, this is a team that, unlike previous Italian squads, spells aggression.
France can attack at will, however, they cannot wish away the fact that they are the oldest team in this World Cup finals. Can Zidane last the whole 90 minutes? Can Thuram push himself to add protection to Barthez's goal? We shall know before the night is over.
Many feel that the game might not have many goals, as both teams would not hesitate to retreat into their shells at will. The goalkeepers have an important role to play. Gianluigi Buffon is arguably the best shot-stopper in the game. Barthez can be good on his day, and messy at other times, so Domenech would be looking up to the stars to lend help to the man with a shaven pate. However, Buffon will have to face Henry, one of the best forwards in the world. If Henry gets into his touch, this would be a great contest between striker and goalie. Barthez can be pull off some really good acrobatic saves, and the Italians would not find him a pushover. Toni, Gilardino, Del Piero, and Inzaghi will have to work their way to glory.
Both sets of defenders are excellent. The Italians would have felt sore at missing their star defender, Alessandro Nesta, but Materazzi who stepped in for the Milan centre-back has been just as effective. The Italians would want to exploit Abidal, as did the Portuguese with great success.
Zidane v/s Gattuso could be battle to watch. If Gattuso, a midfielder in the mould of Roy Keane, can terrify the French midfield as he has done to the other teams in the competition, the World Cup should be well on its way to Rome. Zidane would be wary of this threat, and this master craftsman could show his artistry to outwit him. The other interesting battle would be between Totti and Pirlo, and Makelele and Vieira. The Italians should ideally mark Malouda and Ribery as weak-links in the Blues' midfield.
In all, this should be a game which will shower victory on which coach -- Lippi or Domenech -- gets the tactics right.
Juventus FC, now in the centre of the betting and match-fixing scandal in Italy, has the largest number of players in the final. Buffon, Cannavaro, Zambrotta, Camoranesi, Del Piero, Vieira, Thuram and Trezeguet are all part of the first team at the Old Lady of Turin. Besides, Zidane and Henry have also played for the North Italian club. AC Milan and Lyon are also well-represented.
Italy have won with ease alternate games. They won against Ghana, Czech Republic and Ukraine with a two-goal margin or better. Games 2, 4 and 6 were not as easy. The USA fought and won a point; Australia were done in by a poor refereeing mistake; and the Germans weren't conquered until late into extra time. Tonight, Italy play their seventh game.
France have won their last two games with a one-goal margin, and both these goals came from set pieces. Incidentally, Zidane has scored or set up the last three goals for the French.
Does the French team possess the staying power? Especially after such tough, exerting games against Brazil and Portugal. I think not. There could be very few goals tonight. And I'm betting on the Azzuri to win it. Maybe on penalties, who knows?
The game should be a treat for the neutral football fan. But hey, there is nothing as a neutral football fan. And if you are undecided yet, back the Italians. They DESERVE to win this!