10 July 2006

WC Final: Italy 1-1 France (Italy 5-3 on penalties)

So Italy are the champions. Congratulations to them; they were probably the most consistently good team in the tournament. They were winners of the toughest group, and did very well through the second round as well.

But it was a near thing. France played very well, and in the second half looked more likely to score than did the Italians. For long stretches, Italy couldn't even get the ball out of their half, and France brought wave after wave of attack. But I think the overall exhaustion began to tell on both teams, and while that allowed France to retain posession, it kept them from coming up with the creative, incisive move that could beat the Italian defense. France deserve a lot of credit. They made the group stage a close thing, but got the key win over Togo that saw them through. Then they had a very tough run through the elimination rounds, including solid wins over Spain, Brazil, and Portugal. Italy had an easy route through the octos and quarters (Australia and Ukraine), though their last-gasp victory over Germany makes up for it.

So two deserving teams, and a very close match. The early penalty was very soft but with this ref (Argentine Horacio Elizondo, who gave so many cards in the Czech Republic - Ghana match) it was not surprising to see it given. Zinedine Zidane almost missed it but didn't; the early goal then brought Italy out of their shell. The answering goal came quickly and was a beautiful corner, followed by a solid header from Marco Materazzi. But with equality restored, the game deflated, with Italy generally soaking up French pressure but unable to mount sustained pressure of their own. Both teams had a few chances, but as exhaustion took its toll penalties seemed inevitable. And so it proved.

But first we had the spectacle of Zidane's (well deserved) red card. It's not clear why he reacted as he did; clearly something was said that set him off. It's no excuse though. A player of his stature should know better and it's a disappoinment that he couldn't control himself. It's a shame that he will be remembered for this, particularly because it had little impact on the penalty shootout. David Trezuguet was always going to take his penalty, even if Zizou was around, and it was his miss that made the difference. So I hate to see the stories that link his ejection to the French loss, particularly because his excellent play was a major factor in bringing France to the finals in the first place. It's a shame that Italy are 'winners' and France 'losers', as the margin between the two teams was razor thin. But that's the way the game is played.

So it's all done and dusted. We have 34 days before the English season kicks off with the Community Shield. Arsenal will start a bit earlier, with the Champions League qualifiers beginning on 8 August. So 29 days from now. I feel for the players, particularly Thierry Henry. He suffered a nasty knock in the first minute yesterday that left him semiconscious on the Berlin turf. He had a fine game afterwards, but was taken off in extra time, either from injury or exhaustion. He has a mere two weeks to relax before Arsenal reconvene to train for 06/07.

More thoughts on the World Cup will come later. But for now, allow me to offer my congratulations once again to Italy. Despite the close match, there's no doubt that they are deserving champions. And now they're only one behind Brazil!

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