UEFA Euro 2008
Group Stage: Group C
Italy 2–0 France
Ten years’ ago this month, France were World Champions. Two years’ ago, France almost became World Champions once again. But after this defeat against an Italian side that is finally showing some promise, and to refer to Domenech’s much-discussed star-gazing, France is in the midst of a supernova.
Not only is this supernova illustrated by France’s early departure, but also in the players that signify this so-called golden era. Thierry Henry is worryingly short of any threat compared to his Arsenal days; Nicolas Anelka was an irrelevance, coming on as a substitute when Domenech ran out of ideas; Lilian Thuram refused to play because of a supposed bout of nerves; and William Gallas was ineffective and reverting to his volatile state, at one point on the verge of tears.
France’s challenge effectively ended after eight minutes when Franck Ribery, the man who is constantly referred to as the next Zidane — the link between the golden-era and the new, uncertain one — went off with an injured Achilles. The pain etched on his face was likely mimicked by every French man.
Within twenty minutes, Luca Toni could have single-handedly embarrassed the French; instead, it was more the opposite. Opportunities provided by Simone Perrotta and Andrea Pirlo on several occasions weren’t taken, and Toni’s indifferent form will be a real worry for Roberto Donadoni. Toni is in danger of becoming Italy’s equivalent to Andrew Cole: lethal at domestic level, unconvincing at international level.
Still, Toni’s persistence managed to come through after twenty-five minutes thanks to some French assistance in the form of Eric Abidal. After three attempts in getting the ball, Abidal brings Toni down in the penalty area, and France are a goal and a man down thanks to a superior Andrea Pirlo penalty. It was all either side deserved.
The unfortunate Samir Nasri, a transfer target for Arsene Wenger and brought on to replace the injured Ribery, was then taken off after a mere fifteen minutes in a desperate attempt from Domenech to bring some stability to his unstable back four. Yet it also shows how at odds the French were as a whole — needing a win, yet bringing off a talented, attacking player.
Karim Benzema was the stand out player for the French and when going forward, gave a still uncertain Italian defence something to handle. Benzema drew players towards him and left gaps that Henry seldom exploited; and when the French came out for the second half, he spurred the side on which almost caught the lackadaisical Italians who defended dangerously deep on several occasions.
Benzema’s efforts, however, would prove insignificant when on sixty-two minutes, Henry made his only noteworthy contribution. A Daniele de Rossi free-kick deflected goalward off Henry’s flailing left-foot, leaving Gregory Coupet with no chance.
It was only after de Rossi’s strike that Domenech decided to switch to three attackers and eventually bring on Anelka — the lack of any verve or enthusiasm, Benzema aside, was stunning. Indeed, Benzema almost gave the French some hope with a finely struck curling effort that required the best from Gianluigi Buffon.
The Italians’ tournament may have finally begun, and it would be foolish to dismiss them. But with Gennardo Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo suspended for their quarter-final against a ruthless Spanish side, they’re up against it. Even so, these are the Italians.
For France, who reportedly have Didier Deschamps waiting to take over from Domenech, they have a huge black hole to fill (enough of the astronomy terms now…).