Euro 2008 – Italy survive Group of Death
Italy booked their place in the quarter-finals of Euro 2008 with a 2-0 win over 10-man France in their final Group C game.
But the result in Zurich would have meant nothing had Romania beaten Netherlands in the other Group C game in Berne. Fortunately for Italy, they did not, going down 2-0 to the impressive group winners to leave the Azzurri looking forward to a last eight clash with Spain.
Somewhat ominously for the rest of teams left in the tournament, the same old story appears to be playing itself out once again – Italy have struggled to find any kind of fluency so far this tournament, yet they are still there and in with a shout of glory.
Events at the Letzigrund Stadion unfolded in a similar fashion – it was far from classic Italy but a combination of good fortune, grit and determination saw them emerge from the Group of Death very much alive.
As for France, their era of international dominance is over and the defeat is likely to provoke a series of retirements from football at this level and the French Football Federation may have to consider the position of coach Raymond Domenech.
Domenech may well already be ruing his decision to play Abidal in the centre of the French defence in preference to veteran centre-back Lilian Thuram, even though he is more accustomed to playing at left-back.
Abidal looked uncomfortable in his new role from the outset, and it was his mistake on 24 minutes that changed the entire dynamic of the match.
The Barcelona man allowed Toni to sneak in behind him before clumsily upending the big striker in the penalty area. Referee Lubos Michel was left with no choice but to point to the spot and, since Abidal was the last defender, brandish a red card.
Pirlo stepped up to net the spot kick with aplomb, leaving France with a mountain nearly as big as the nearby Alps to climb.
De Rossi’s deflected free-kick on 62 minutes made that task impossible, the ball hitting Thierry Henry‘s outstretched boot in the wall and sending Gergory Coupet the wrong way.
Even before Abidal’s dismissal, the world champions had taken the game to France and could easily have taken the lead as early as the fourth minute had Luca Toni not opted to strike from distance when played through on goal.
It was not to be the last time the Bayern Munich striker went close – he could have netted a first half hat-trick but for a man who netted 24 times in the Bundesliga last season, he was curiously profligate in front of goal.
At least his team-mates were capable of troubling Coupet – defender Christian Panucci had an 11th minute header cleared off the line by Claude Makelele before Coupet got the slightest of touches to Fabio Grosso‘s well hit free-kick to divert the ball against an upright just before half-time.
But despite being a man down, and having seen the influential Franck Ribery stretchered off with a suspected Achilles injury, France managed to creep back into the game as the opening period approached its conclusion.
And after the break, Les Bleus continued to enjoy some possession as Italy’s play strangely became rather ragged. In particular, Jeremy Toulalan impressed and it was the Lyon midfielder’s cross which led to Karim Benzema‘s stinging volley soon after the re-start fly just off target.
Henry too seemed intent on dragging France back into the game, but once news filtered through from Berne that Netherlands had netted a second against Romania, the huff and puff in the French side’s play left them.
Another Benzema shot on goal – brilliantly saved by Buffon – was all France could muster in the closing stages, leaving Italy to wind down the clock and savour their victory.
Toni should have capped a great night for his nation with a late goal, but his blockbuster from outside the box grazed the wrong side of the post in injury time. It mattered not, Italy were through and now no one will want to meet the Azzurri in the knockout stage.