Italy, World Champions in 1934, 1938 and 1982, have conceded just one goal in their six matches at the 2006 tournament so far and will go into the match buoyed by a hard fought extra time win over host nation Germany in the semi final, and a 3-0 drubbing of Ukraine in the quarter final.
France, the 1998 World Champions and notably European Champions in 2000 when they defeated Italy by golden goal in the final, also have a stingy defense which has allowed just two goals in their six matches including clean-sheets against Brazil and Portugal.
The Italians will be looking for revenge for their Euro 2000 final defeat where they were just seconds away from a 1-0 victory, only for France’s Sylvain Wiltord to equalize in the 90th minute and then David Trezeguet to score the winning golden goal in extra time.
Forwards Wiltord and Trezeguet are again part of the French squad in 2006 but will most likely start on the bench, with all eyes on captain and retiring midfielder Zinedine Zidane.
Over the past month in Germany, 34 year old Zidane has rediscovered his touch, guile, and skill of years gone by in a dazzling renaissance of footballing brilliance.
The 2006 World Cup final will be the influential midfielder’s last match for France before he retires from international duty.
Raymond Domenech, France coach, has found what looks to be a winning combination with experienced central defenders Lilian Thuram and William Gallas both in excellent form, while fullbacks Willy Sagnol and Eric Abidal have both made inroads forward, providing good crosses while also completing their defensive duties with aplomb.
The five men in the Les Bleus midfield have established a productive balance with the stoic Claude Makalele shielding the back four, workhorse Patrick Vieira in support running box-to-box, with the exuberant Frank Ribery, attack-minded Florent Malouda and the maestro Zidane given free reign to press forward.
Thierry Henry looking for another
Up front, the spearhead of the attack is dangerous striker Thierry Henry – a player who has been much maligned for his lack of performance on the international stage, but whose domestic prowess for club side Arsenal now seems to be coming to the fore when he pulls on the French shirt.
Coach Domenech’s most controversial selection has been that of goal keeper Fabian Barthez ahead of Gregory Coupet to wear the gloves, with Barthez occasionally causing heart flutters for the French coach with a few fumbles in the past few matches.
France were always a strong side on paper going into the tournament but it took them until the end of the group stage to prove it on the pitch, with their captain now confident of winning a second World Cup in three attempts.
“It’s going to be very difficult and we are going to have to be at the top of our game, but we have the weapons to do it,” said Zidane.
29 year old Bayern Munich player Sagnol suggested that France only needed one weapon to defeat Italy and win the tournament.
“We have Zidane and they don’t,” said the French defender bluntly.
Under coach Marcello Lippi, Italy have shown that they are more than the defensive outfit that they are painted as by so many, as although they have conceded just one goal, they have also played with plenty of enterprise when going forward.
The rock of the team has undoubtedly been captain and centre-half Fabio Cannavaro who has marshalled his defence and made some excellent plays himself in stifling opposing attacks.
“We have Zidane and they don’t”
-French defender Willy Sagnol
The Juventus player has had several different partners in the centre of defense throughout the tournament, but is likely to start alongside Inter Milan defender Marco Materazzi due to the ongoing injury of first choice centre-half Alessandro Nesta.
The solid Cannavaro and Materazzi will be flanked by fullbacks Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso, both of whom have scored fantastic goals and played big roles in the Italians’ campaign so far, while Gianluigi Buffon, arguably the best goal keeper in the world, stands between the posts.
5 on 5
The midfield battle will be one of intrigue as the five-man French component are taken on by five of the best from Italy with AC Milan hard-man Gennaro Gattuso playing the anchor role in front of his defense.
The creator from deep will be playmaker and dead ball specialist Andrea Pirlo, while around him will be the attacking influence of Juventus’ Mauro Camoranesi, Simone Perrotta from AS Roma, and Azzurri talisman Francesco Totti.
Italian talisman Francesco Totti
If there has been one question mark over the Italian line-up it has been in the lone-striker role with Serie A top scorer Luca Toni only finding his scoring touch against a largely toothless Ukraine defense midway through the second half of their quarter final match.
Coach Lippi has persisted with the out of touch Toni, while also experimenting with AC Milan forward Alberto Gilardino, Vincenzo Iaquinta from Udinese, and 31 year old Alessandro Del Piero in order to find goals up front.
If the French think they have the weapon to destroy Italy, then the Italian manager may well have the counter-measures as Lippi coached Zidane at Juventus while the midfielder was in his prime.
“France have recovered the best Zidane and have grown through the tournament,” Lippi said of his former apprentice and now Cup final opponent.
“Zidane is probably the best player there has been in the past 20 years.”
A World Cup victory for Italy would do wonders for the football-mad country as they wallow in the Serie A match fixing scandal which could see big clubs Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio relegated to the lower divisions, with their multi-million dollar players sure to move to other clubs should this happen.
Italy coach Marcello Lippi (l) and
However the Italian players in Germany have shown remarkable resolve by leaving their domestic troubles at home and focusing on the tournament for their country.
“We have shown that we have got some great footballers and that we are not criminals,” veteran striker Del Piero said.
“Everything that has happened off the pitch has brought us closer together.”
If form is anything to go by then goals may not flow freely in this World Cup final, however it should be far from a boring match as two of world football’s powerhouses who have hit form at the right time come together for an enticing final match in Berlin.
Whether it takes 90 minutes, two hours, or a penalty shoot-out to reveal the 2006 World Champion, this match is sure to be a historic occasion and a great spectacle.