The end of the road is near. After a monthlong tourney that has seen 62 games, 5,730 minutes played, 141 goals, 336 yellow cards, 27 red cards and 354 substitutions so far, the 2006 World Cup finals will be decided Sunday when Italy meets France.
That Italy has reached the final comes as no surprise. The Italian squad was the most complete team entering the tournament, with no discernible weaknesses. However, few observers expected France to be here at this stage. The talent in the French lineup is undeniable, but there had been huge question marks about team chemistry and about coach Raymond Domenech's ability to get the best out of his players. Clearly, those concerns have since been pushed to the wayside.
It could even be argued that this French team, at least on paper, is more talented than the 1998 winners. It has the same goalkeeper, the same airtight defense, Zinedine Zidane leading an imperious midfield and, unlike in '98, the French actually have a starting striker who's a genuine threat to score (Thierry Henry meet Stephane Guivarc'h).
Here are five things to keep an eye on in the final:
1. The perfect ending: Zidane is already the only player ever to have won the World Cup, European Championship, Champions League and FIFA World Player of the Year titles. He's undeniably the greatest talent of his generation and has stated his intent to retire after this game. Is he about to fashion the perfect retirement scenario? It's hard to bet against Zidane -- he has an incredible history of coming up large in big games.
Since the elimination stage, he has been rejuvenated, a sharp contrast after looking like a man on his last legs in the first round and suffering the previously unthinkable of French media conjecture that he should be benched. How big an impact will he make? Italy coach Marcello Lippi (who knows Zidane well, having coached him at Juventus) said it best to reporters, "Zidane is probably the best player there has been in the past 20 years." If Zidane plays like only he can, France could very well win it all.
2. Waiting to exhale: On the whole this World Cup has been devoid of the usual emergence of a great goalscorer. Currently, the leading scorer is Germany's Miroslav Klose with five goals, which if it stands, will be the lowest Golden Boot total since 1962, when several players tied for the lead with just four. France's Henry and Italy's Luca Toni came into the tournament heavily hyped after prolific seasons in their respective domestic leagues, but although neither has flopped, both have yet to live up to expectations. The final could boil down to which striker finally breaks out.
3. Defense, defense and more defense: It's no coincidence the two teams with the best defenses made the final by overshadowing the teams that offered more offensive pyrotechnics (Brazil, Spain, Germany and Argentina). Both teams have extremely strong back lines and expect this to be a mirror-image reprise of the Euro 2000 final between these two countries in a low-scoring affair.
4. Therapeutic boost: It goes without saying that winning the World Cup is a shot in the arm to any country's national pride and esteem. In this instance, though, the final probably comes as a welcome distraction to both countries. In Italy's case, the Serie A match-fixing scandal back home continues to cloud its reputation, whereas France has been troubled all year by persistent high unemployment and huge protests related to that. Throw in the fact that controversial French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen complained last week that minorities are overrepresented on the French team, and whoever wins the World Cup likely will feel its problems are solved, at least for a day or two.
5. Pot, meet kettle: There are sharp similarities between the two teams. Both are superb technically, and both use five midfielders. France plays the more straightforward 4-5-1 and Italy has favored a 4-3-2-1 formation of late, but it's virtually the same thing, given the way both teams play. The Italians have attacked far more than usual this World Cup but still rely on their traditional counterattack. As Henry noted to reporters "Italy is a team which waits and waits. They send you to sleep, and then they score two goals in the last two minutes."
The irony, of course, is that France plays a similarly counterattacking style based on a slow possession game while using its defensive midfield to help soak up the pressure. The similarities don't end there; many in the French lineup either currently ply their trade in Italy's Serie A or once played there, making this a matchup in which most players will be intimately familiar with each other's game.
Breaking down the teams
Italy: Gianluigi Buffon is either the best goalkeeper in the world or at worst in the top three, depending whom you talk to. Only Petr Cech and Iker Casillas merit comparison with Buffon. After Buffon was investigated for his gambling habits before the tournament, the fear was that he would be distracted, but he has looked anything but that. Factor in an Azzurri defense that has looked watertight for most of the tournament, and it's going to take something special to beat Buffon.
France: Fabien Barthez was a controversial choice as the French keeper before the tournament started, with Lyon's Gregory Coupet considered the safer choice. Barthez's reflexes have diminished over the years but he remains a solid shot-stopper. Barthez's chief flaw remains the same, however, and it's the reason he was run out of Manchester United a few years back. Simply put, he's an erratic keeper who can be prone to mistakes. Historically, the book on Barthez was that although he was unreliable on the club level, he was always under control for France. However, any French fan who witnessed him playing volleyball with Cristiano Ronaldo's 30-yard free kick in the semifinals cannot help but feel uneasy whenever Barthez is called on to make a save.
Italy: The amazing thing about Italy's defensive performance so far is that most of it has been achieved without tour de force center back Alessandro Nesta, out with injury since the game against the Czech Republic. Without his longtime partner in crime, Italy's other defensive stalwart, Fabio Cannavaro, has picked up the slack and has been sensational. The two attacking wingbacks -- Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso -- have been excellent at the back and dynamic attacking down the flanks. Grosso in particular has proved to be a match winner, earning the penalty that saw Italy through against Australia (albeit a dubious one) and curling a sublime left-footed winner against Germany. The chink in the armor continues to be Nesta's replacement, Marco Materazzi. To be fair to the big man, he actually has been fairly solid so far, surprising people, but Materazzi has a history of making a big error or lapse in concentration that leads to an opposition goal.
France: The French defense has been extremely solid, particularly from the second phase onward, when the back line has evoked memories of the majestic defense that carried France to the 1998 World Cup. One member of that starting unit, Lilian Thuram, remains (although now at center back instead of right back), and his partner in the middle, William Gallas, is equally proficient. Right back Willy Sagnol is solid, but the weakness here is left back Eric Abidal. Abidal is a threat going forward, but he remains shaky defensively and might be hard-pressed to counter the threat of Zambrotta on the wing.
Italy: Italy's strength remains the playmaking duo of Andrea Pirlo and Francesco Totti. Totti's still not back to his best after his ankle injury and has had a tendency to drift in and out of games so far, but he still leads all players at this World Cup with four assists. Pirlo, on the other hand, has been consistently superb and, along with Cannavaro, has been Italy's best player so far. The book on Pirlo is that he's not your ideal lead playmaker because he can be shut down when a defense keys specifically on him and uses man-marking. However, when Pirlo is afforded a free role and the opportunity to play off another playmaker -- as he does at club level with Kaka at AC Milan and for Italy with Totti -- he has the capability to unlock any defense.
The remainder of the midfield offers a balance between defense and energy. Gennaro Gattuso is the ball-winning defensive stalwart; Mauro Camoranesi is a complete two-way player; and Simone Perrotta offers energy down the left flank. So far this World Cup, Perrotta often has found himself in promising offensive spots on the field, but his leaden first touch has let him down every time. Lippi might want to consider playing Daniele De Rossi (back from suspension) to help shadow Zidane.
France: The French team still revolves predominantly around Zidane, who was dominant against Brazil and less so, but still excellent, against Portugal. The defensive midfielders Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira, have been superb, making it almost impossible for opposing teams to generate any offense through the center of the field. Youngster Franck Ribery offers an element of spontaneity on the right flank and prevents teams from focusing totally on Zidane in midfield. Ribery has an erratic shot, but his willingness to run at people creates space and problems. However, he'll need to learn to pace himself and conserve his energy better in the final. The final midfielder, Florent Malouda, is the most unheralded player in the unit but has been a mild disappointment, showing none of the flair he exhibits at club level.
Italy: The Azzurri have yet to find a go-to guy at forward for this World Cup, and this might ultimately prove to be their undoing. The man in question, Toni, has looked uncomfortable in his role as the single target man up front for Italy. He's been inconsistent so far this tournament and has had some extremely quiet spells, not what one expected coming off one of the most prolific seasons in Serie A history. Although he has good technical skill for a big man, he's not the ideal type of player to link up with the interplay provided by Pirlo, Totti and the other Italian players. Expect to see Toni subbed out for Alberto Gilardino early in the game if he fails to make an impression.
The other bone of contention is Lippi's infatuation with bringing on Vincenzo Iaquinta, who's quite possibly one of the most cumbersome strikers to don the Italian jersey in recent years. Aside from a fortuitous goal gifted to him on an error by a Ghanaian defender, the only thing Iaquinta has demonstrated so far, is his unique ability to fall down when trying to dribble. Lippi would be better off going with veteran Filippo Inzaghi, who at least has demonstrated a historical ability to put the ball in the net, or Alessandro Del Piero, who isn't the player he once was, but still offers a creative option. Del Piero is probably still haunted by his glaring misses against France in the Euro 2000 final, which would have sealed the game for Italy and will be looking for a chance at redemption.
France: Contrary to the '98 World Cup winning team, this French squad is loaded with talent at striker. Yes, Henry and David Trezeguet were also on the '98 team, but both had yet to blossom into the world-class strikers they are now. In Henry's case, he still has something to prove. Although regarded by many as the finest striker in the world, he has been dogged by two accusations: a seeming inability to reproduce his club form at Arsenal at the national team level and a disturbing habit of choking in big games (see the Champions League final against Barcelona). Henry's goal against Brazil in the quarterfinal took care of the first label; now we'll see whether he can shake the second charge on the biggest stage of them all.
Trezeguet is a prolific scorer in Serie A but is unlikely to see much time in this game. Domenech favors the lone striker formation and prefers to replace Henry late in games with someone who can mimic his pace and ability to run at defenders. Trezeguet is more finisher than speed merchant. So far, Domenech has been using Louis Saha in this role, but with Saha out through suspension, Sidney Govou will get the call. It remains to be seen whether Domenech's continued insistence on subbing out Henry late in games will come back to haunt him.
The French have played superbly since the group stage and, in Zidane, have the biggest clutch player in the game in recent memory. However, this Italian team is just too good defensively and might prove difficult to unlock even without Nesta. For the French to win, they'll need a piece of magic from Zidane or Henry, but in a defensive game where the buildup will be slow on both sides, the Italians must be favored. Italy has been the most consistent team in the World Cup so far and has been troubled only by teams that have forced the pace and played a physical style. In a game between two very similar teams, Italy narrowly edges France, although it goes almost without saying that if the game goes to penalties, bet your life savings on Italy losing.
Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at: email@example.com