Mike Gibbons


 
Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Dull Italians expected to be finalists again



    A couple of months ago, when mulling over the potential winners of the forthcoming World Cup, I remarked somewhat sarcastically that Italy would use their dull but effective style to grind their way through to a heart-breaking loss on penalties in the latter stages.

    After this I received a scathing e-mail from a rather disgruntled Italian supporter, who quite rightly reminded me of my own nations failings at shoot-outs. I did think perhaps I owed him an apology for such a piece of negative stereotyping, but there is no need for that now, as the football gods that oversaw the draw for Korea/Japan have done it for me. I am now convinced that Italy will be in the final this year, and may very probably win the whole thing. My reasoning behind this shameless piece of crawling to the Italian nation has five points:

  1. They will use their dull but effective style to grind their way through. Ok, so I couldn’t resist, but not even the most myopic Italian fan could claim his team sets the world on fire. They will hate the comparison, but they are rather like the Germans – however badly they may be playing, they get the required result, and are ruthless in obtaining it. They play for the first goal and then defend it. In Euro 2000 the collective will of Nesta, Cannavaro and Maldini to protect their goal at all costs bordered on the insane. If you don’t concede a goal, you don’t lose, one of the oldest maxims in football, which has worked in the past for France (1998), Brazil (1994) and, lest I forget, England (1966).


  2. They are a tournament side. In 1982 Italy were abysmal in drawing all three of their first round games, and then beat Argentina, Brazil and finally West Germany to win the tournament. They were similarly awful in the first round in 1994, and came within a few penalties of victory in Pasadena. Nigh on every journalist and pundit wrote them off before Euro 2000 as a spent force and they were within seconds of victory against France. When the time comes, especially in the knockout phases, they bring it all together.


  3. Their penalty jinx is over. Traditionally their favourite way of exiting a tournament, including the last three World Cups, Italy finally won a penalty shoot-out in the Euro 2000 semi-final. The cool, calm efforts of Totti and company were in marked contrast to the tame (Massaro, Donadoni) or wild (Baresi, Di Biaggio) efforts of their predecessors. Cynics may point out that the triumph was secured at the expense of a nation even more inept at penalties than both Italy and England put together – the mighty Holland. We shall have to wait and see if the cynics are right.


  4. They have great players. A glaringly obvious point, but you will not win the World Cup without them. They have quality in every area of the pitch, from either Buffon or Toldo in goal to Fiore and Totti in midfield and Del Piero and Vieri in attack, and as we’ve already mentioned their awesome defence. Argentina and France are rightly praised for having the best squads in the world, but the Italians are not that far behind them.


  5. The draw. So they have the style, they rise to the big occasion, their dreadful run at penalty shoot-outs seems to be coming to an end, and most importantly they have the players. This alone would normally make them one of the favourites, but prior to the draw last month no one seemed to rate their chances, preferring instead to talk up France, Argentina, Portugal, Spain and even England. They say in cup competitions you need the luck of the draw, and Italy certainly had that on December 1st 2001. Amid all the "group of death" talk and the how-the-hell-did-Brazil-get-such-an-easy-group hysteria, it went almost unnoticed that the draw opened up a clear road to the final for Italy.

    Even though in the past they have made the group stages difficult for themselves, they will fear no one in Group G. Ecuador are something of an unknown quantity, but hardly a south american superpower. Croatia were a fine team four years ago, but a far lesser threat now. Mexico laboured in one of the weakest qualifying sections in FIFA, and as such can be discounted this time around. I think it is a very safe bet that Italy will win this group without to much trouble and advance to the knockout stages. These have been formed into conferences of four groups, and the toughest teams in Italy’s half are Spain, Germany and Portugal, more of whom later.

    So if Italy win their group, their opponents will be the runners up from group D. Portugal should win that group easily, so Italy will be up against either South Korea, Poland or the USA. None will be a match for the azzuri, so Italy are already in the quarter-finals without having been tested yet.

    From the quarter-finals onwards it becomes more hypothetical. If we follow this route Italy will probably play either Germany, Republic of Ireland or Paraguay. None of these teams has players remotely in the class of Italy, and will be happy just to reach the quarter-finals (except maybe the Germans, but they won’t have any choice in the matter when they are knocked out). The worst case scenario would be Spain, if they only come second in their group, but I think this is unlikely. So Italy progress, with the minimum of fuss, to the semi-finals.

    Here they cannot help but have a tough game, but it will be their first of the tournament, most likely against Spain or Portugal, who should clash in the quarters. Portugal have been in one World Cup semi-final way back in 1966, Spain have never been that far ever. It is completely in the realms of fantasy to predict the outcome I know, but bear in mind two things. Spain’s traditional knack of going missing on the big occasion (who is to say they will even be in the semi-finals?), and I may be alone in this, apart from the great Luis Figo, a highly overrated Portuguese team. Quality will out, and Italy will go through.

    This is, of course, a best case scenario for Italy. What if they finished second in their group? Well the hardest route then would be Portugal in Round Two, Republic of Ireland in the quarters and Germany in the semi-final. If they get by Portugal in that route, they will still be favourites to make the final. In this half of the draw I think it is only Figo, Rui Costa and friends who can prevent Italy making the final, and in a World Cup match between the two I would back Italy to win. This is the luck of the draw so often mentioned. Italy’s section is not easy, but it is easier than the alternative.

    Which brings us to the final, a one-off game to determine the best team in the world. This I will not try to predict the outcome of, but the fact that Italy has come through a weaker section may make all the difference. They will have had less taxing games than any team that has made the torturous journey through the other side of the draw containing Brazil, France, Argentina, Nigeria and England. Had Italy been in this section instead of say Brazil, I would not fancy their chances half as much.

    So there we have it, Italy has a great chance now to become world champions in June. I wouldn’t make them favourites, but I fully expect to see them in the final, where they may or may not grind their way to a dull but effective victory.


 

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