Friday, July 07, 2006

World Cup Post #14

Semi finals wrap - No blues for the Azzuri and Les Bleus as they get stronger by the game

Italy vs Germany: Right from the start this was an epic contest as both teams dished up some football of the highest quality. One of the best games of the tournament, it was great to see both sides play a forward-thinking style of game, full of high quality technique, tactics and a strong mental approach from both sides. The score stayed 0-0 for a very long time, but this was down to some bad luck, good goalkeeping and brilliant defending. Italy shaded the first half with some lovely interchange in midfield between Gattuso, Pirlo and Totti, who were able to dominate possession and bring the likes of Perrotta and Toni into the game. Tactically, Lippi was spot on, recognising, as Peckerman had in the quarter final, that in order to stop Germany bombing forward, as they had done earlier in the tournament, you had to keep the two fullbacks, Friedrich and Lahm, busy. So Perrotta and Cameronesi, nominally defensive players, were pushed further forward on the left and right respectively, closer to Toni, as much to nullify as to create. But Perrotta wasn’t content with that, he was often found breaking beyond Toni, keeping Friedrich and Mertersacker busy down Germany’s right. Totti dropped deeper, closer to Pirlo and Gattuso, often outnumbering the Germany central midfield of Kehl and Ballack. It kept Ballack busy, ensuring that when he did get on the ball, it was in deep areas where he couldn’t hurt Italy, clever stuff. But the hosts weren’t without their moments, Klose giving the Italian defence a physical contest and Borowski, in for Schweinsteiger on the left, looking neat on the ball. The only thing missing from both sides was a finish, as much down to some excellent defending and organisation. The hosts had more of the ball in the second half as their physical game started to tell, Pirlo and Totti fading out of it, and Lahm and Podolski becoming more prominent, but Italy’s back four and the outstanding Gattuso in front of them were magnificent, dealing with everything. Even when Schweinsteiger and Odonkor came on, Zambrotta and Grosso stepped up, denied them space, and limiting the supply. Back came Italy early in extra time, spurred on by a couple of positive Lippi changes. Gilardino and Zambrotta were each denied by a post, before the Germans showed the same spirit they have mustered throughout this tournament, fighting back to create a couple of chances of their own. Klose had given everything and was fading, but it was his partner, the much loved Podolski, who had a couple of great chances, first denied by a brilliant Buffon tip-over before heading wide from an Odonkor cross when left free at the near post. The look on Klinsmann’s face said it all; if only the chance had fallen to Klose. Back came the Azzuri, seemingly keen to decide it without the having to resort to spot-kicks, and when Pirlo forced a great stop from Lehmann not far out from penalties, the resulting corner fell to the AC Milan playmaker on the edge of the box. He again showed wonderful technique, the hallmark of this match, holding the ball, attracting four defenders, and sliding it through to Grosso to shape perfectly into the far corner. There was no falling over this time, none of the cynicism that has increasingly infiltrated this world cup, just brilliant football from both sides, and it’s a shame the hosts didn’t have more time to respond. They tried, it is their way, only to leave space for Gilardino and Del Piero to burn them on the counter. The hosts had played a positive role in this world cup, breaking down the stereotype of a dour and defensive German game. Just as the nation had opened up to embrace the world, so the team had opened up to a world of positive football - strong workrate, sound technique, an improving defence, a cutting edge in attack and a brilliant mentality. As for the much maligned Italians, their tournament just gets better by the game. This was by far their most accomplished performance, built on the foundations of a rock solid defence and an undefeated record under Lippi now stretching beyond 20 games. Remarkably they have conceded only one sloppy own goal in six games. It has been proved that defences often dominate in the major competitions and with Cannavaro, Zambrotta, Buffon, Materazzi, Grosso, Gattuso and Co. in this kind of form, playing with a growing sense of unity and belief, the Italians can almost taste their fourth world title.

France vs Portugal: Not the classic we saw 24 hours earlier in Dortmund, this was more a methodical performance from a French side that, like the Italians, is playing its best football at the right time in the tournament. Like the Italians, the French have also relied on a solid defensive unit and excellent organisation to reach the final, only conceding one goal since the sloppy late equaliser they gave up to South Korea in their second match. Here they appeared to have too much belief for a Portuguese side that might just have invested too much into its past two games, tiring victories over Holland and England. The French had built their confidence with outstanding and deserved victories over the Spanish and Brazilians and started this game in an adventurous manner. Indeed, both teams looked to attack early, confident they could defend any lead they obtained, and they both had a right to be confident. While France had only conceded two, Portugal had only copped one. The first goal would be crucial, and although there was some debate around the circumstances, Henry making the most of some definite contact from Carvalho, it appeared legitimate. Zidane’s successful spot-kick set the tone of the remainder of the game, Portugal pressing as Les Bleus, marshaled by an experienced spine, retreated around the edge of the 18 yard box. The spine were magnificent, particularly central defensive duo Thuram and Gallas, with Makelele and Vieira in front of them not far behind, restricting the space for the likes of Deco, Ronaldo, Maniche and Figo. It became predictable, Portugal getting some mileage in the wide areas from Ronaldo and from deep in central midfield from Maniche, shooting from distance, but not in the area it mattered most, in and around the box. If Portugal were to achieve the ultimate dream of winning the world cup, they needed their all-time top scorer Pauleta to provide a real cutting edge up front, but, as in Euro 2004, he failed to deliver. Portugal was left with no choice but to cut in from wide or shoot from distance. As the second half ticked on, the game was crying out for Scolari to partner Pauleta with another striker, create an extra target, an extra body for France to deal with, but instead he made a couple of like-for-like changes, and Portugal ran out of ideas. For a team that likes to play through the opposition, something the French never allowed, Portugal didn’t have the adaptability to resort to a more physical style, built around crosses. It wasn’t a pretty second half, but it was effective enough from a French side that has combined the old with the new. While the above-mentioned quartet has been joined down the middle by veterans like Barthez, Zidane and Henry, out wide the new brigade have impressed. While Sagnol doesn’t quite qualify in the new brigade (he has been terrific at right back), the likes of Ribery, Malouda and Abidal have all emerged as key components out wide. But there is no doubt where the strength lies, straight down the middle, and Raymond Domenech has done well to get this squad on side and have them pulling in the same direction. At half-time in their third game, against Togo, they looked dead, but spurred on by Vieira, prompted by Zizou and protected by Thuram, they have turned things around, peaking when it counts.


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