Wednesday, April 26, 2017

France, Italy to battle it out for Euro survival

France go into their do or die clash with Italy here Tuesday beset by doubt, reports of internal strife and player fatigue.

The backdrop to this latest instalment of the rivalry between the old foes could not be more different to their last meeting in a major finals.

Back in 2006 Italy overcame France at Berlin's majestic Olympic stadium to be crowned champions of the world.

Here on Tuesday at Euro 2008 those two same footballing superpowers roll up their sleeves in a back alley scrap for a route out of Group C on the heels of already qualified Holland.

The maths is 'relatively' straighforward.

Wide margin defeats to the Dutch (3-0 and 4-1 respectively) and 1-1 and 0-0 draws with Romania left Italy and France requiring a win and Romania to draw or lose to Holland.

Given their inferior goal difference that is the only way France can make it.

Italy would still have a chance if they draw with France, and Romania lose, leaving them both with two points.

Here the permutations require the services of a Mensa brain but in a nutshell Italy would go through if they produce a score draw with France and Romania lose.

The reward is a quarter-final date with Group D winners Spain in Vienna next Sunday.

France keeper Gregory Coupet, reeling from France's heaviest defeat in almost three decades against the Dutch, summed up the sombre mood in Les Bleus' camp.

“Today we've got our heads down,” he said at the team's training headquarters in Chatel-Saint-Denis on Sunday.

“There's tiredness, questions being asked….we need time to breathe and to prepare quickly for Italy.”

France, whose famed defence, the traditional bedrock of Raymond Domenech's side, was embarrassingly torn apart by Holland, could welcome back talismanic captain Patrick Vieira who missed the opening two games with a left thigh problem.

“I don't know if he'll be playing, but he wants to, he's really really hot, at 100 percent, in the head but we don't know whether his thigh is at 100 percent.

He's intelligent, if he plays it's because he can play,” reported France midfielder Franck Ribery.

Domenech has a real tactical conundrum on his hands as he's already tried 4-4-2 and 4-3-2-1 with different players – while his opposite number Roberto Donadoni made no fewer than five changes for the Azzurri's second game against Romania.

Italy would already be down and out if it hadn't been for keeper Gianluigi Buffon's heroics in saving a late penalty from Adrian Mutu.

This is the match of our lives,” said the Italian keeper.

“After suffering a defeat such as we did against Holland you either roll over or you appeal to your pride and that's what we did against Romania.

“Like ourselves, France will be surprised only to have mustered one point after two matches.

“But it seems that Italy are on better form as we have come off a good match.”

Both sides know each other as well as aged aunts, with France coming out on top when they met in the Euro 2000 final only for Italy to gain handsome compensation in the 2006 World Cup.

They were also drawn together in qualifying for this competition.

Thierry Henry, who was deployed as a lone striker in that game, reflecting on the monumental task lying ahead in Zurich, said: “Now we know that we have to beat Italy and hope for good news from the other match. It's 'do-able' but it's going to be a knife edge game with the Italians.”

“We still have a possibility of qualifying, we're not defeated.

“This is not the first time we've been in this situation and I hope once more we can lift our heads and get out of it.

“We'll try and prepare the best possible for Italy.”

Chelsea's Claude Makelele, who picked up a yellow card in Berne on Friday, stressed the need for the squad to remain united.

“We have to remain solid and try to go all out in the last game. If we're going to leave we have to leave with our heads held high.”

Up at their Euro headquarters in Austria Donadoni says he can sense the determination in his players to pull off a Houdini-style escape against Les Bleus.

“We have to beat France,” the former AC Milan winger said.

“It is a crucial match because when one still has a chance to qualify you have to push yourself to the limit.

“I saw already at training…that the players are determined to prove how good they are against the French.

“They have a real hunger to prepare in the best possible manner for this challenge, which will dictate whether or not we progress or not.”

For Italy there is a sense of deja vu hanging over Tuesday's game.

At Euro 2004 they required a win over Bulgaria in their final group game and for the other match between Denmark and Sweden not to end a high score draw of 2-2 or more.

They duly got their win while the Danes and Swedes ended up…at 2-2, sending the Italians packing.

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