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No clear favourite in tight final
Mitch Phillips | July 06, 2006 16:59 IST
Italy, seeking their fourth triumph, have conceded only one goal, have class in every area of their well-balanced team and a spirit that has grown from the belief that the rest of the world is out to get them.
That is enough to make them the most marginal of favourites in the eyes of most oddsmakers but, in a rarely seen situation for such a high profile sporting event, others have been seduced by France's remarkable turnaround and rate the 1998 winners as more likely to triumph in Berlin.
While Italy point to fate as they have reached the final every 12 years since 1970, France are dreaming of a fairytale finale for Zinedine Zidane [Images] who will retire afterwards aged 34 regardless of the result.
Zidane, scorer of two goals in the final and the inspiration for France's success on home soil eight years ago, has come out of retirement to lift his country again as they seek to banish the memories of 2002 when they were knocked out in the first round after failing to score a goal.
There was little hint that they could become contenders this year when they laboured to draws against Switzerland [Images] and South Korea in their first two group games.
They appeared to wake up for the 2-0 win over Togo that took them through behind the Swiss in second place but it was the 3-1 comeback victory over Spain in the second round that showed that France had suddenly developed into serious contenders and that Zidane was back in charge.
The quarter-final victory over Brazil [Images] was well deserved and they never looked like losing to Portugal in the semi once Zidane had converted his 33rd-minute penalty.
They will walk out for Sunday's final brimming with confidence but if they are to complete the turnaround by winning it they will have to do something no other team has managed so far in the tournament -- score a goal against Italy.
Cristian Zaccardo's own goal in the 1-1 group draw with the United States was the only time Gianluigi Buffon has been beaten in six games while at the other end they have notched 11 goals from an impressive 10 different scorers.
Against the backdrop of the match-fixing scandal that could see half the squad going from World Cup winners to second or even third division players in a matter of weeks, Italy have worked their way through the tournament with ominous efficiency.
They emerged top of a tough group ahead of Ghana, Czech Republic and the United States then showed great spirit to battle it out with Australia with 10 men before snatching that second-round match with a last-minute penalty.
If that was a controversial decision -- the incensed Australians claimed Fabio Grosso dived -- but the fullback's even later intervention in Tuesday's semi-final left no room for doubt as he curled a superb shot beyond Germany's [Images] Jens Lehmann in the last minute of extra time.
Alessandro Del Piero completed the 2-0 win that sent Italy into their sixth final but it is their rearguard that has been essential to their progress to date.
Fabio Cannavaro has been absolutely outstanding at centre back while Gianluigi Zambrotta has been the best fullback at the tournament.
The key performer, however, has been defensive midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, whose relentless harassment of anyone who dares approach his team's penalty box has made him a man of the match contender in just about every game.
His scruffy, no-nonsense approach is in complete contrast to the elegantly striding Zidane but whoever emerges on top from their midfield duel on Sunday could make the difference in a match that is anyone's to win.