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World Cup | ANALYSIS

They Should Switch Jerseys

July 09, 2006|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — Those who have watched the Italian and French teams for the last month have found, well, not a whole lot of difference between them.

France has Fabien Barthez in goal. Italy counters with Gianluigi Buffon. It's a wash, although Barthez's unpredictability might tip the scales in Buffon's favor.

France has a back line of Eric Abidal, William Gallas, Lilian Thuram and Willy Sagnol, with central defenders Gallas and Thuram the twin pillars holding everything together.

Italy can match that man for man with a defensive line of Fabio Grosso, Marco Materazzi, Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluca Zambrotta. Again, Cannavaro is the pillar, and Materazzi has done admirably in shouldering the weight normally borne by the injured Alessandro Nesta.

Call that even too.

France has two of the best defensive midfielders in the world in Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira. Italy has two that can match them step for step in Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo.

French Coach Raymond Domenech employs three attacking midfielders in Zinedine Zidane, Frank Ribery and Florent Malouda. Italian Coach Marcello Lippi does the same, with Mauro Camoranesi, Francesco Totti and Simone Perrotta.

France relies on striker Thierry Henry to score its goals. He has three so far. Italy counts on Luca Toni, who has two.

Look to the bench and it's the same story. If the French need more firepower, they can call on David Trezeguet or Sylvain Wiltord or Sidney Govou. If the Italians need offensive help, on comes Alessandro Del Piero or Alberto Gilardino or Vincenzo Iaquinta or even Filippo Inzaghi.

So what should fans look for? The individual duels. They will be taking place all over the field, and these are the key players:

**

ZIDANE VS. GATTUSO

For France to succeed, it needs its icon to have the sort of match he enjoyed against Brazil. Zidane needs to be free to unsettle Italy with his skills, his passing, his vision, but "Zizou" probably will have Gattuso constantly in his way.

Known affectionately as "Snarl" or "Growler" because of his terrier-like play, Gattuso is a destroyer, a play-breaker rather than a playmaker.

"You don't stop Zidane," he said. "Maybe he stops himself if he's not in form. You have to try to control him, and if you want to limit his effect you need a lot of luck and need to make the sign of the cross."

**

HENRY VS. CANNAVARO

The French striker has not been dominant in this tournament and will have to come up with the sort of performance he typically displays for Arsenal if he is to penetrate the Italian back line.

Standing in Henry's way will be Cannavaro, who knows he cannot afford to yield an inch of space to a striker whose touch and speed make him an immediate threat anywhere near the penalty area.

"He is having a fantastic World Cup, in his position he is the No. 1, absolutely," Lippi said of Cannavaro. "He is the best in the world at the moment."

**

VIEIRA VS. PIRLO

For France, it's imperative for Vieira to snuff out the creativity that Pirlo brings to Italy's game.

Totti is supposed to be the Italian playmaker, but with half a dozen or more screws and a metal rod still in his leg after a bad break in February, Totti is not the player he was. Pirlo is far more influential, as he proved in carving Germany to pieces in the semifinal.

Vieira did a masterful job in containing Brazil's Ronaldinho in the quarterfinals, and will have to match that effort to keep Pirlo from cutting France apart.

As even as the teams appear to be on paper, Italy would seem to have the more potent offense, especially if Lippi sticks to the attacking style that has gotten the Azzurri this far.

In addition to their multiplicity of quality strikers, the Italians can attack from midfield through Camoranesi, Totti and Pirlo, and also from defense through outside backs Zambrotta and Grosso.

In the end, wave after wave of Azzurri attacking from both flanks and down the middle could be enough to wear down French resistance and bring Italy its fourth world championship.

If not, then Les Bleus will certainly have earned their second.

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