France and Italy - the Road to the Final

Published July 1st, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

France and Italy have followed similar paths since the 1998 World Cup with an initial slump followed by a return to form in time for the Euro 2000 finals. 

For the Euro 2000 qualifiers, France kept together the nucleus of the side, which hammered Brazil 3-0 in the 1998 World Cup Final. 

But inevitably they found it hard going to maintain that level of play and a change of manager, from Aime Jacquet to his understudy Roger Lemerre, also appeared to have a detrimental effect. 

The result was that the French struggled abysmally through the early qualifiers, notably with an appalling 1-1 draw against lowly Iceland. They even struggled to beat minnows Andorra, prevailing thanks to a late Frank Leboeuf penalty. 

In the final qualifying games, the French were minutes away from what would have been an embarrassing elimination - or at the best a play-off spot, but a late goal for Ukraine against Russia and a 3-2 home win over Iceland meant they topped their group and were on their way to the Low Countries. 

But Lemerre came under a welter of criticism that he had lost control to a powerful group of players grouped around skipper Didier Deschamps and that he was unable to decide on what his attack should look like. 

As calls for Lemerre to quit gathered pace, a series of friendly matches allowed him to apply oil to the machine. 

Confidence-building wins followed against Croatia (twice), Poland, Scotland and Slovenia before the French concluded their preparations at a tournament in Morocco where, for the first time, Lemerre aligned young strikers Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka and discovered that at last France had a potent attack. 

France opened the finals with a comprehensive 3-0 win over Denmark as playmaker Zinedine Zidane reveled in the movement up front provided by Henry and Anelka. 

Old warhorse Laurent Blanc opened the scoring in the 16th minute after Anelka had jabbed the ball out of Peter Schmeichel's hands and Henry made it 2-0 in 64 minutes running on to a Zidane pass to curve a shot around the Danish goalkeeper. 

Sylvain Wiltord added a third on the stroke of full-time as the Danes were run ragged and suddenly France were installed as tournament favorites. 

They quickly came back to earth with a bang in their second match as the fleet-footed Czech Republic players grabbed control of the midfield and pressurised the vastly experienced French back four. 

But as the French reeled, goalkeeper Fabien Barthez came to the rescue with a string of great saves and substitute Youri Djorkaeff produced a typically opportunistic strike to win the match 2-1. 

Assured of qualification for the quarterfinals, Lemerre sent out what amounted to a second-string side against Holland and watched them give the top Dutch side a run for their money before losing 2-3. 

That set up a classic quarterfinal against Spain in Bruges where Zidane opened the scoring with a curling free-kick after 33 minutes. Five minutes later the Spaniards were back on level terms from the penalty spot. 

Djorkaeff again popped up from nowhere to put the French back ahead a minute before half-time, but the Spaniards had the chance to take the game into extra-time when Barthez gave away a penalty in the final minute. 

But to Spanish dismay, Real Madrid midfielder Raul lifted his kick over the bar and France were through. 

The semi-final against Portugal was just as tough, the Portuguese taking the lead through a Nuno Gomes strike after 19 minutes. It stayed that way into the second half before the Anelka-Henry tandem struck again with the latter scoring in the 51st minute. 

The tie was the first in the finals to go into extra-time and it was Zidane who put France through scoring from the penalty spot after a hotly-disputed - although surely correct - hand-ball decision against defender Abel Xavier with a penalty shoot-out looming. 

Italy, who lost on penalties to France in the World Cup quarter-finals, saw legendary goalkeeper Dino Zoff take charge and they got off to a flying start in the qualifiers with wins over Wales, Switzerland and Denmark. 

But the rot then set in as the "Azzurri" finished up with draws away to Switzerland and Belarus and a loss at home to Denmark. They still managed to top their group, just one point ahead of the Danes and the Swiss. 

Defeats against Belgium and Spain in friendlies leading up to Euro 2000 and injuries to top striker Christian Vieri and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon furthered deepened the gloom and the best that could be said about the Italians coming into the tournament was that "You can never discount Italy." 

Fortunately for Zoff, Italy had a relatively easy group and a comfortable enough opening match against Turkey. 

But after a spectacular opener from Antonio Conte in the 52nd minute, the Turks got back on level terms and it took a soft penalty converted by Filippo Inzaghi to get them full points. 

The Italians reverted to type with an essentially defensive game dependent on swift counter attacks and that was enough to see off hosts Belgium 2-0 in their next match, the goals coming from Stefano Fiore and Francesco Totti. 

Italy made it three out of three with a 2-1 win over Sweden which saw Alessandro del Piero make his return to the fray. 

The Italians were starting to believe in themselves and two goals before half-time were enough to see off Romania in the quarter-finals. 

But it was a different story in the semi-finals, which they entered as big underdogs to hosts Holland. 

The sending off of Gianluca Zambrotta after only 34 minutes sent the Italians scuttling back into their defensive shell and 90 minutes of backs-to-the-wall stuff later, a 3-1 penalty shoot out triumph took them into the final – (AFP) 

© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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