Monday, July 10, 2006

World Cup Post #17

World Cup Final wrap - A finale befitting the tight, pragmatic and fiesty month we've seen

FITTINGLY and not surprisingly, a world cup that has been dominated by defensive, stifling, win-at-all-costs football has been decided from the penalty spot, not an ideal scenario but in keeping with a tournament that has been the tightest in recent memory.

A final that promised so much about half an hour in ultimately delivered much of what we’ve grown accustomed to over the past month, a tactical stalemate punctuate by drama, controversy and decided by who could keep their nerve from the penalty spot.

For once it was Italy who emerged the penalty heroes, as ruthless from the spot as they have been all month, a killer instinct that has taken them to their fourth world crown. The journey hasn’t always been as clinical as their penalty taking was in the final, but it has been efficient and single-minded.

Ultimately it was all about the final objective, whatever it took to get their hands on the trophy, best summed up in the dying moments when defender Marco Materazzi, such a key figure throughout this final, wound up the departing legend Zinedine Zidane, getting a reaction out of the French skipper that swung the psychological momentum to Italy just at the right time.

France had been on top and, prompted by Zidane, looked the only team capable of settling it before penalties.

Whatever Materazzi said there is no excuse for what followed, Zidane losing the plot literally in his final hour. So a player who has conducted himself so admirably at the highest level for over a decade (bar the odd incident), earning the respect of his peers and the world, proved he is human after all.

It is hard to find anyone with a negative word about Zizou, and when the dust settles from this moment of madness, let’s hope he’s remembered for all the good things he has brought to the game, such the as the bravery needed to do a ‘Panenka’ in the world cup final.

Some might describe his seventh minute penalty as crazy or fortunate, but he proved he has the class and strength of character to pull it off, albeit with the help of the post. It came from yet another dubiously awarded penalty, the tireless Malouda going down when Materazzi had seemingly pulled out of a tackle.

Fortunately for the Italians it came early and prompted them to life, Pirlo delivering a masterclass in corner taking, planting one on the head of Materazzi for the equaliser before teeing up Toni for another bullet header, which crashed off the crossbar.

Italy was dominating the opening half, but still had to deal with the wide threat of Malouda and Ribery, constant menaces. Indeed, it was a great battle on the flanks, Zambrotta and Grosso trying to deal with the French wide men as well as launching their own raids forward.

With Pirlo pulling the strings and Cameronesi and Perrotta tucking in to crowd the midfield, Italy shaded the first half, but the second period was a different story. With Henry renewing his love affair with playing against Italian teams, Ribery and Malouda breaking in support and Makelele pulling the strings, Italy was pegged back.

But as always it relied on the solidity of its defending, both at the back and in midfield. This was not the impressive attacking Azzurri we saw defeat the hosts in the semi final, it was the pragmatic Italy we’ve also seen throughout the tournament, grinding their way to a result, the ultimate result.

Remarkably, the team’s joint top scorers finished on only two goals, defender Materazzi and striker Toni. In all they had 10 scorers, truly a team effort in a tournament dominated by team play.

While there might be some criticism that this defensive style can take a team all the way to the world crown, the reality is they couldn’t have achieved their success without the unity they’ve displayed, particularly with all that is going on around the game back home.

It takes a special bond and belief to pull off a world title, and this squad has demonstrated it in spades, lead superbly by Cannavaro, with wonderful support from the likes of Buffon, Zambrotta, Pirlo and Gattuso, as well as two unlikely defenders in Materazzi and Grosso.

But they have also had their luck, as any team needs to win a major championship. Rocking early against Ghana they were simply more efficient in front of goal, before being pushed hard by a USA that got at them with pace. It came together when they needed it, against the Czechs, only to rocked by the Socceroos, relying on that controversial late penalty to get through. Italy had hardly set the world on fire but were through to the quarter finals. Against the Ukraine they stepped it up, but only after the crossbar had come to Buffon’s rescue when they were up 1-0. The most impressive display was against the hosts, but even then they had to rely on a late late show by Grosso and Del Piero, setting up the final where they did enough despite looking jaded.

As is the Italian way, they went through undefeated, conceding only two goals along the way, one an own goal, the other a penalty. Little wonder they are the world champs.


Blogger Mike Salter said...

Nice report!

It's rare that a team wins a Cup competition as long as the WC without a little bit of luck. Italy certainly had that (the penalty v. Australia, the sendoff of Pope v. the USA, etc.), but some of the anti-Italian sentiments that seem widespread at the moment aren't really fair. They were the most balanced team and probably, in the long run, the best.

On watching the final again yesterday, I was struck by how badly France needed a second striker during that second half. They were completely dominant for about the first twenty minutes and created plenty of openings, but Henry was either crowded out or had gone wide. Surely they could have sacrificed one of the mids (or even a defender, seeing that Makelele was playing so well and, for once, getting forward effectively).

Wed Jul 12, 09:18:00 pm AEST  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...

Yes Mike, thanks for your ongoning interest.

I agree that the problem of a second striker was one that many teams failed to come to terms with, whether by choice or neglect. For France it was obvious when there was some good delivery from wide from the likes of Ribery, Henry and Malouda, yet no-one on the end of it.

When Vieira limped off, the defensive minded Diara was introduced, allowing Makelele to play further forward that I think I've ever seen him. It was a like-for-like substitution, but fairly conservative.

Henry could have done with some support. Saha would have been the option but of course he was suspended. Trezeguet eventually came on but had little time.

It was unfortunate the reluctance of most managers to introduce a second striker. Instead they went for the safer midfield options.

But even with a second striker, I could hardly see how the Italian defence would be breached. There just seemed to be this air of destiny about their goal being protected.

Btw, enjoyed your read on the NSW premier league final, I'm aiming to get across for it. It's a clash I've seen a couple of times over the past couple of years, always a good game. Agree that Blacktown might be just a little too organised and physical for United, and the clash between Ozbey and Juric/Vrkic could be decisive. I have enjoyed watching United's big midfielder Filipovic. The Demons are clear favs, esp with a solid defence, but De Marigney has United pressing well and they're confidence has been building. Should be a good one. Enjoy.

Fri Jul 14, 05:33:00 pm AEST  

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