Italy concentrate on stopping Zizou

July 8, 2006
By Kevin Palmer
(Archive)

There can be no question about the word most often on the lips of Italians since they qualified for the World Cup Final by beating Germany 2-0 in an enthralling Dortmund semi-final on Tuesday night.

Alessandro Del Piero
GettyImages / AlexLiveseyAlessandro Del Piero: Knows the threat posed by Zinedine Zidane very well

At press conferences at the Squadra Azzurra camp, rarely does a minute go by without someone mentioning the name Zinedine Zidane, the French talisman whose revival has stunned even the most shrewd observers at this World Cup.

'Personally I can't think of a more exciting final than one between my Italy and a French team spearheaded by such an incredible champion as Zidane,' said Italy attacker Alessandro Del Piero, whose glorious finish sealed his country's extra-time win against the Germans.

'I played with him at Juventus for several years and I like to consider him a friend as well as a magnificent player. He has proved all the critics wrong who claimed he was well past his best. Tell that to the Brazilians. They could not take the ball off him. It used to be the same for us in training at Juve.

'He's the number one. He can win a match for his team with one moment of magic, but I don't think we will man-mark him. It's not the way this Italy team operates. Anyway, France have two or three other players who can hurt us, not least Henry up front. To stop Zidane, you need a wide-ranging, zonal approach with everyone doing their part.'

The man who has to concoct an anti-Zidane plan, Italy boss Marcello Lippi, will probably use the same strategy he used to good effect against Germany's creator-in-chief Michael Ballack. When floating between the midfield and attack, he was picked up by engine room warrior Gennaro Gattuso and when going wide, someone else took up the slack.

'I coached Zizou at Juve and I know how difficult it can be to neutralise someone of his great ability,' says Lippi. 'It can be counter-productive to have a marker following his every move. I don't want to take my players out of the match equation altogether. We have to watch Zidane closely. We can't have him running the show like he did so stylishly against Brazil. Our organisation has to be just right to combat this menace.'

Italian central defender Marco Materazzi agrees: 'Zidane is so gifted and so unpredictable that he can cause you problems any time, anyhow. But I'll feel secure in the knowledge that my mate Gattuso and others will be busting a gut to keep him in check.

'I'll have enough trying to stop Thierry Henry. He's so quick that he seems to have a built-in motor. The important thing is not to give him the room to run in. We know how to prevent this, to close down the spaces, he thrives on. This is one of the biggest challenges of my career. I'm aware I'm only playing because of Nesta's injury, but I don't feel any less important. I don't see myself as a stop-gap. My job is to make sure a champion like Nesta is not missed and so far I've done the job. I'm relishing the responsibility.

'With France knocking out Brazil, they may start as slight favourites for this final, but we'll have a lot to say about that. From one to eleven we're a real team, a group of lions who don't know when to accept defeat.

'On and off the pitch we are one. We've had a lot of press criticism, particularly after the games against the USA and Australia and the scandals in our game still hang over us, but we've stuck together and come through. We've shown a lot of character. We want people to associate Italian football with positive things. If we can beat the hosts Germany in their backyard, why can't we beat France in the final?'

Tipped to move to the Premiership if AC Milan are demoted to Serie B for influencing match referees, irrepressible midfield grafter Gattuso is brimming with confidence as usual: 'We have been winning as 23 men,' he says. 'This is a working class team where everyone gets their hands dirty. That's the wonderful thing about us. We are a great unit and never give in to the final whistle.

Marcello Lippi
GettyImages / AndreasRentzMarcello Lippi: "Italy always attack"

'I'm not going to show any disrespect to the French. In Vieira, Zidane, Makelele and Ribery, they have an outstanding midfield and it's going to be a battle royal to gain control in this important area.

'I'd be crazy if I wasn't backing us to win the final. I feel our time has come. The momentum is on our side and the desire in our camp is so strong you can touch it. None of us has ever won anything with the national team. I can't wait for Sunday and the chance to put ourselves in the history books alongside the Italian team which won the World Cup in 1982.

'Me, I'm playing for the Italian people, for Italians wherever they may be throughout the world. I'm going to fight for them.'

In these finals, Marcello Lippi has unquestionably proved his tactical grasp, switching with ease from 4-4-1-1, 4-3-1-2, 4-3-2-1 and 4-2-3-1. However, he is quick to point that it is the players which make systems work not vice-versa.

'If we have got to Italy's sixth World Cup final, the credit must go to those on the pitch,' stresses the coach. 'They have done the hard job but what has struck me since we beat Germany is their serious state of mind. They don't consider their work done. They want more, the title itself. It's a good sign.

'I see this Final as very evenly-balanced between two high quality sides. As normal, the smallest of details will decide the winner. I'm confident it will be our day. We have a good organisation and technical talent and crucially, we have that sort of steely morale which hard to break. If we play with the same application, purpose and freshness we showed against Germany we have a magnificent chance.'

Needless to say Lippi will be banking on the continued solidity of a defensive corps which has let in just one goal in the whole of the tournament and in that sector no one has shone more brightly than centre-back and skipper Fabio Cannavaro.

'I couldn't be more satisfied with my own form and the way things have gone for us defensively up to now,' says the Juventus man. 'Now we need one more steady performance against the French. But of course it will not be straightforward. Henry is a world-class striker, Zidane is a genius and the French look to be strong in the air at set-pieces. We'll need to be on our guard from first to last.

'My partnership with Marco (Materazzi) has given us a lot of guarantees. We played together at Inter and it worked well there. Even if today's Italy has a more open attacking stance, I for one I'm glad that we are living up to our tradition for great defensive play. It's part of our history and I wouldn't like it to be thrown away. You have to have a good defence to get on in the World Cup. Like us, France have proved it.

'I remember my first game for Italy in a World Cup tie at Wembley in 1997. We were attentive at the back, gave nothing away and Zola scored the only goal of the game. The same again in Berlin would do for me.'

The Azzurri are starring at the prospect of the ultimate triumph against adversity - all they need to do now is apply the finishing touches to their remarkable story.


  • Email newsdesk@soccernet.com with your thoughts.