WC2006: France face Italy as Portugal bow out
This semi-final did not equal the one 24hrs prior in Dortmund. There were decent attacks from both sides, but neither came close enough to score, which made for an anti-climax in multiple proportion. Notably Christiano Ronaldo was booed from the first touch of the ball, which didn't deter him from playing well, just not well enough for the most outstanding player on the pitch. Diving occurred once again, maybe unsurprising to some, with Florent Malouda dropping near the left of the Portuguese box. Ronaldo, Pedro Pauleta, Helder Postiga dived and add to that a melee from Portugal over Luis Miguel's fall to the ground that occurred with no France contact. Ronaldo made for the most audacious dive, jogging nearer the penalty spot to approach a cross and then launching in the air as if he faced a swimming pool.
Luis Figo almost made Eric Abidal pay for low defensive approach as the Inter man made his way on occasion down the France left for crosses. But the only figure in the box that had any chance of meeting such balls was Pedro Pauleta, who I felt would have another poor World Cup, scoring wise. Marshalled away from threats via William Gallas and Lillian Thuram, Pauleta needed support and hardly received it. Therefore the French were troubled but not brought to task as Portugal made little of testing Fabian Barthez, albeit Maniche Ribiero came close with a shot that skimmed over the bar.
One goal separated these two, courtesy of another of the moment, in England at least, Ricardo Carvalho. Zinedine Zidane played a ball to Thierry Henry, the Arsenal man turning into the box and away from Carvalho. Carvalho came with a right foot to challenge and missed, then followed up with his left that made contact with Henry's right foot. The mere contact constitutes to a foul and has done mainly outfield, so when this occurred the Uruguayan referee, Jorge Larrionda, gave the decision to France. On another day, perhaps in the Premiership, the contact may have been waived away with Henry making more of the contact. But in the World Cup semi-final, it counted. So did the stand-off between Zidane and Portugal's impressive stopper Alexandre Ricardo, the veteran master midfielder and the astute penalty-stopper.
Recall that the Portuguese keeper mentioned he saw in the eyes of the English players which post they were looking at when they took their spot-kicks four days ago, which helped him guess which way to go. He did the same last night to Zidane and almost got a hand to the ball. He may have contributed to England's exit but there seems an acute sense of direction from the Sporting Lisbon keeper that I have only seen followed somewhat by Jens Lehmann and Pepe Reina.
Try as they did, the Portuguese could not convert on goal, even when they were gifted a good chance when a high ball was headed down by Gallas to the waiting Fernando Meira, who blasted it wide instead of keeping some composure. Figo began to tire, Deco wasn't his influential best, Pauleta came off for Simao Sabrosa to no effect. When the final whistle blew, it seemed to a number of Portuguese players they had accepted defeat from the final 10mins. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari remonstrated at the referee. Afterwards, Carvalho stated France were no better than Portugal and that the referee gave France their victory, while Ronaldo stated the crowd were against him because he was a dangerous player and the referee would not give decisions because Portugal was a small country.
Ronaldo: "I was pleased about being booed. I am a dangerous player, and maybe the French fans were upset to see a dangerous player."
"We played well and did our best but the referee didn't help us. Everyone who saw the match could see the referee wasn't fair. He should have shown yellow cards but he did not because Portugal is a small country."
Portugal were reasonable, they did not play well and Ronaldo was more dangerous against England than last night. He made some runs along the flanks but nothing that superseded that against England. Those who booed him were apparently a combination of English and French fans added to the boos, and potentially other foreign nationals who had tickets for the semi-final in anticipation of their team getting through. And calling for the referee to issue yellow cards is hypocritical, considering that had the referee decided to pull out for bookings often, Ronaldo, Pauleta and Postiga would have to have been on the referee's list without doubt. It was also questionable for Portugal to have not changed their 4-5-1 system as it was not making appropriate channels towards goal. However, any system would fail if certain players do not produce the kind of football such a system is expected to enhance. It is at this point I interject a minor digression of Sepp Blatter's criticism of the English lone striker system which suspiciously went no further, even towards the Portuguese camp, prior to the semi-final.
Nonetheless, it is France who face Italy in the 2006 World Cup final, Berlin, 7pm kick-off. While they failed to produce inspirational football in the group stages, the French have not looked back since. Henry appears to be more flexible in his own lone role (another user of the Blatter criticised system not mentioned), Zidane wasn't as impressive last night as he was against Spain and Brazil but he enters into his last World Cup final. Patrick Vieira is anchoring well with Claude Makelele in central midfield, Franck Ribery still has to sparkle as he did for the U-21s', but best of all is their defence. William Sagnol has been very good on the right, Gallas and Thuram are quick, stern, no-nonsense defenders, while Barthez has come into action on occasion and done so with confidence, albeit a lack of handling for a Ronaldo freekick.
Possibly France's weakness is Abidal, has shown up well in attack but in defence has become quite susceptible. If Italy are to exploit the tight French resistance, it is through cunning quick football and more acute efforts on target. For France are quite capable of snatching a lead and sitting back on it, which commands the opposition to come at them and invite the quick counter-attack.