Italians bid adieu to Les Bleus

ITALY could easily have woken up this morning like the man whose numbers came up in the lottery and then discovered that he’d lost the ticket.

But Holland did them the favour they needed against Romania in Berne while the Italians were taking care of business here in Zurich, although their pedestrian 2-0 victory over 10-man France was hardly the stuff to inspire confidence for their quarter-final battle against Spain.

While the win means embattled Italian manager Roberto Donadoni lives to fight another day — though perhaps only a win in the final itself will stave off the expected return of Marcello Lippi in time for Italy’s World Cup games against Ireland — the defeat for France marks the end of the road for Raymond Domenech and some of his longest-serving players, with Didier Deschamps already tipped to take over one of the hottest seats in European football.

As they move into a process of culling the old brigade and developing a new generation of players under new management, the French will be only too glad to consign this match to the historical record of high profile and invariably controversial games between the two countries, including the 2000 European Championship decider, which they won with a so-called golden goal, and the World Cup final in Germany two years ago, which they lost on penalties.

In terms of their deeply disappointing exit from Euro 2008 — six goals conceded and only one scored in three outings — that tumultuous night in Berlin cast the longest shadow for France. After all, their key man in Germany was the incomparable Zinedine Zidane. His infamous sending off, for nutting Marco Matterazzi — who, to judge by his shambolic performance in the first game here against the Dutch, still hasn’t recovered — coincided with France starting to succumb in a final they should have won. His total absence here at Euro 2008 has been just as palpable, with the French always struggling to locate that elusive creative spark.

While the Dutch manager Marco van Basten made eight changes against Romania, Domenech and Donadoni were busy with a more modest reshuffling of their own troops. The big losers for France were veteran defender Lilian Thuram and full-back Willy Sagnol, while the manager looked to young gun Karim Benzema and ex-Gunner Thierry Henry to provide the goals that Les Bleus needed if they were to have any hope of progressing. For his part, Donadoni retained his back four from the game against Romania and there was a return for the battling Gennaro Gattuso. Antonio Cassano, who had brought variety to the one-dimensional Azzurri attack when coming on as a sub against the Romanians, also started this time but there was no place for people’s choice Alessandro Del Piero, after his listless showing in the same game.

But whatever the best-laid plans of the French coach might have been, they were undone inside the opening half an hour. First, Frank Ribery, comfortably France’s best player of the tournament, came off worse in a tangle with Gianluca Zambrotto and had to be replaced by the Marseille tyro Samir Nasri. But the most significant departure from the field of play was to follow in the 23rd minute when Thuram’s replacement, Barcelona’s Eric Abidal — already struggling badly to keep track of Luca Toni — clumsily challenged the Italian striker from behind in the box. It was to prove a double-whammy for the French: Slovakian referee Lubos Michel pointed to the spot and showed Abidal the red card, poor Nasri then becoming the sub subbed as he was forced to make way for another defender, Jean-Alain Boumsong. Meanwhile, Andrea Pirlo made short work of the penalty to give Italy the lead.

With the French down to 10 men, the sustained Italian pressure began resembling a white tide, leaving Thierry Henry a forlorn figure. Had Luca Toni found his shooting boots for the first time in the tournament, Italy would have been well out of sight but the big Bayern Munich striker once again squandered a succession of chances, his profligacy causing the Italian journalists beside me to erupt in positively operatic fashion.

Henry may have misplaced the sublime skill of yesteryear but there was no doubting his captain’s spirit as he worked hard to redress the balance in personnel and on the scoreboard, coming close just past the half-hour mark when he got away from his marker Giorgio Chiellini but could only send his angled drive wide.

But the French also had ‘keeper Coupet to thank for keeping them in it, his finger-tip save deflecting Grosso’s low, bending free kick onto a post two minutes before the break

At half-time, it was 1-0 in Zurich and 0-0 in Berne, and the Italians had one foot in the quarter-finals.

Four minutes after the restart Benzema volleyed wildly over from a promising position as the 10 men in blue did their best to exert pressure on the Italian goal but, suddenly, all the noise was coming from the Italian end of the ground as the stadium’s big screen revealed that Holland had taken the lead in Berne.

Here in Zurich, a scrappy game also developed a bit of needle, and Italy’s second was somehow in keeping with the undignified flurry of fouls and yellow cards, as Daniele De Rossi’s wildly ambitious, long-range free-kick cruelly deflected off Henry’s boot to beat the wrong-footed Coupet. News of Holland’s second began circulating minutes from the end, and the Italian fans were finally able to begin partying in earnest, whilst not forgetting, of course, to bait their old foes with a gleeful chant of “Adieu Les Bleus”.

France may have suffered the biggest blow but the win was not without cost to the Azzurri, as yellow cards for enforcer Gattuso and playmaker Pirlo mean that both will miss the showdown with Spain.

FRANCE: Coupet; Clerc, Gallas, Abidal, Evra; Govou, Toulalan, Makelele, Ribery; Benzema, Henry.

Subs: Nasri for Ribery (9); Boumsong for Nasri (23); Anelka for Govou (70).

ITALY: Buffon; Zambrotta, Panucci, Chiellini, Grosso; Pirlo, De Rossi, Gattuso; Toni, Perrotta, Cassano.

Subs: Ambrosini for Pirlo (55); Camoranesi for Perotto (63); Aquilana for Gattuso (80).

Referee: Lubos Michel (Slovakia).


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