by Trevor Whenham - 07/06/2006
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The match-up for the World Cup finals is a lot of things - historic, unexpected and unpredictable. It would have been difficult to find two teams that would be more evenly matched, that have an advantage to make up for every deficiency they may have, and that would create a contest that is more wide open than this one. Italy has been consistently solid throughout the tournament, beating teams without overwhelming them. France, on the other hand, was on the brink of elimination in the first round, and made an unlikely rally to earn a spot in the finals. Both are where they are in part because of somewhat questionable penalties - Italy beat Australia on a call that was a complete mystery, while France benefited from a soft penalty to score the only goal against Portugal.
The match is so close that bookmakers aren't all on the same side to start the betting. Many see Italy as a narrow favorite, but it is also possible to find the Italians fingered as the underdog. In such a tight case, then, you need to look at as many factors as you can to find an edge you are willing to run with:
History - France has beat Italy the last two times they met in major tournaments. The French dispatched the Italians in the quarter-finals en-route to their World Cup victory in 1998, and repeated the effort in the finals of Euro 2000. Both games were very close, however. The World Cup match came down to penalty kicks, which France won 4-3, while the French needed a golden goal to win Euro. The Italians haven't defeated the French at all since 1978. Italy is more experienced in finals, though, with a 3-2 lifetime record. The French have never lost a final, winning in their only chance in 1998.
Experience - Five members of the championship 1998 French team are still on the team today - Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram, David Trezeguet, Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane. Zidane, Trezeguet and Henry all scored on penalty kicks to beat Italy in 1998. Only two Italians return - captain Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Del Piero. How you read this factor depends on your outlook. You could say that the French are more experienced and will react better in the intense pressure of the final game, or you could argue that the French are just older and may not be able to handle the speed and crisp passing of the Italians after the rigors of the tournament.
Leadership - Fabio Cannavaro has played very well at center back for Italy, and defensive midfielder Gennaro Gattuso has been absolutely incredible, and has been an obvious leader by both his play and his actions. Neither, though, is the kind of transcendent personality that his team and his country rallies around. That player, perhaps more than any other in this tournament, is France's Zinedine Zidane. When he was forced to miss the match against Togo that would determine whether they would advance or not, it has been widely said by his teammates that they won it for him so that the French could see him play again. He was the hero in the 1998 final, and has been in increasingly good form as the tournament has gone on. Zidane in his last game is a major factor in favor of the French.
Motivation - Both teams had strong motivations coming into this tournament. An awful performance in the last World Cup and at Euro in 2004 had made France a bit of an international punch line, so they have the salvation of their pride to rally around. That didn't look to be enough in the first round, but clearly has driven them since then. Italy is motivated by a sense that everyone is out to get them. The soccer system in their own country is in a complete mess, the team has been criticized for years and the players are feeling persecuted. They are openly using the us-against-the-world mentality as their driving force. So, is pride or persecution a stronger driving force?
Opponents - A team can often be measured by the strength of who they have beaten. Italy emerged from the so-called group of death, but none of their opponents was as consistent or as scary as they were supposed to be. Their first two playoff games were against weaker opponents - they struggled with the Aussies and manhandled Ukraine. Beating Germany, and doing it in a late explosion of goals, was quite an accomplishment for the Italians, however, given that the Germans were very strong throughout the tournament and were at home. The French have had a much harder road through the elimination rounds. Spain and Brazil were both favored to make deep runs. The Brazilians are sickeningly talented, while Spain had looked completely dominant in early action. Most impressive was France's ability to put both teams completely off their game. Portugal was a lesser opponent, but had a smothering offensive system. France gets a checkmark for traveling a harder path to the finals.
Momentum - Italy has just been steady and consistent throughout the tournament, skipping the real highs and avoiding the real lows. France, on the other hand, had to rally from near-death and have played the role of frantic underdogs three of the last four games. France is clearly riding a wave of momentum, but does that matter?
Defense - Defense wins championships. It's a worn cliché, but if you believe it to be true then you have to give Italy a clear edge. They have not allowed a goal all tournament, aside from one they scored on themselves against the Americans. They have completely smothered their opponents and have hardly let anyone touch the ball anywhere near their net. The French have defused explosive attacks from Brazil and Spain, but they haven't consistently played at the incredible level of the Italians in their own zone.
Offense - Italy struggled to score against the U.S. and Australia, but has scored with ease at other times. They took a long time to connect against Germany, but then did it twice in short order. They have a balanced attack that seems immune to dry spells. France came into the tournament with the knock that they couldn't score, and they lived up to it early. They found the touch against Togo and against Spain, but struggled versus Brazil. The Portuguese game is the most concerning, though. Besides the penalty kick that they scored, they had few chances and often looked disjointed and unorganized on the attack. On the other hand, the French have more explosive players with the potential to put the game on their backs. Italy may have an edge offensively, but it is slight.
The Draw - In a match this close, there is a good chance that neither team will win in betting terms. France played to a draw twice in their three first round games, while Italy tied once. Three of the six games in the quarters and semis were betting draws. With two teams with solid defense, occasional scoring problems, a history of close games, and the tension of a final game so close to home for both teams, the draw definitely needs a look.