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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Time for revenge: France 3 - Italy 1

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It's hasn't been a long time since they met in the World Cup Final, but France already have had their revenge. A great performance served to exorcise some of the frustration, if not all of the disappointment, that lingered from defeat by Italy in the World Cup final 59 days previously. If the fourth star on the breast of the Azzurri shirts appears to be weighing them down, it only served to inspire the home team last night.

This was a stunning win, Les Bleus propelled by the pace and menace of Franck Ribéry and Thierry Henry, allied to the goals of the forgotten man Sidney Govou. Such was the grace and incision of their possession and passing that France might have managed a haul more usually associated with mismatches against the Faroes or Andorra. In fact, Italy, battered and bemused, were spared the worst but were still ripped to shreds.

We can say that the outpouring of joy on the final whistle, a din to match a breathtaking occasion, reflected a nation's belated satisfaction. La revanche had been on the locals' minds and by the end it was on their lips. The rasped homage echoing around this arena was for "Zizou". Zinédine Zidane will have enjoyed watching from afar even if Marco Materazzi, the player whose remark prompted the playmaker's infamous butt in Berlin, was still suspended.

It was like Zidane was everywhere last night. His name was emblazoned across the fans' shirts, his image flickering down from the big screens above both goals. France rose to the occasion, easing their way to victory with a goal after 70 seconds, volleyed magnificently by Govou at the far post from William Gallas's cross. That set the tone for the evening. "I think it wasn't a perfect performance," said the coach Raymond Domenech. "That would have seen us score with every attack and not concede, but we beat the best in the world, the world champions. That is satisfying."

Only in a brief period after Alberto Gilardino had risen to nod Andrea Pirlo's free-kick beyond an exposed Grégory Coupet did Italy threaten to lead. Some 10 minutes later, Coupet was forced to scurry along his line to prevent Eric Abidal dribbling the loose ball into his own net from Fabio Grosso's skimmed cross, but the Italians never came closer.

At times they betrayed a sluggishness that suggested an underlying lack of motivation, as if their exploits in Germany had left them drained of ambition. More realistically, they were undone by a rustiness born of the fact that the vast majority of this side have yet to start their domestic season, the resumption of Serie A delayed until this weekend by the summer's match-rigging scandal.

The legacy of the postponement is that they resume international duties next month five points behind France and Scotland, their gloom deeper than after Saturday's draw with Lithuania in Naples. Italy have been reduced to a game of catch-up, with Roberto Donadoni's appointment already under intense scrutiny.

They were pierced early here, Claude Makelele capitalising on their inability to clear France's first corner to slip Gallas, who TV replays suggested may have been offside, clear down the left; the centre-back's cross was volleyed beyond Gianluigi Buffon by Govou at the far post.

The Lyon footballer has not played a minute for his club this season, such is his bit-part role at Stade Gerland, and his inclusion last night was prompted by a slight knock to Louis Saha in Georgia at the weekend. He began this game with three goals in 24 appearances; he ended it departing to a standing ovation

Yet it was Thierry Henry and Ribéry who revelled most. The Arsenal striker had not scored since the World Cup quarter-final against Brazil, seven matches previously, but the Azzurri could not contain him once Florent Malouda's swerving drive had been parried by keeper Buffon, with Henry sprinting on to the rebound. The striker had been forced wide but from an unkind angle saw his shot deflected horribly by Fabio Cannavaro's challenge to fizz through the goalkeeper.

The World Cup-winning captain's evening never improved despite Gilardino's riposte and he was left clutching an ice pack to his head after France's two-goal advantage was restored. Willy Sagnol's cross was glorious and headed down and beyond Buffon by Govou, the striker clashing heads with Cannavaro in the process. From then on the Italian supporters' chants of "Campioni" were drowned out, their chorus of "Materazzi" also lost in French celebration.


France: Coupet; Sagnol, Thuram, Gallas, Abidal; Ribéry (Saha, 88), Vieira, Makelele, Malouda; Govou (Wiltord, 75), Henry ·.

Italy: Buffon; Zambrotta ·, Cannavaro ·, Barzagli, Grosso; Semioli (Di Michele, 54), Pirlo, Gattuso, Perrotta ·; Cassano (Inzaghi, 73), Gilardino · (De Rossi, 87).


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