For me, one of the pleasures of a long tournament like Euro 2008, in which all-star squads attempt to develop into teams, is guessing about the player selection as the tournament progresses. For yesterday’s do-or-die clash between 2006 World Cup finalists Italy and France, I nailed the Italian selection. Coach Roberto Donadoni opted, as I would have, for steel and ball-winning over speed and width by selecting Gattuso over Camoranesi. And, with anything but a win meaning elimination, he took a chance on the mecurial Cannano up front.
France’s Raymond Domenech also made the moves I thought were needed. Govou instead of Malouda (but Govou played poorly), Benzema reinserted at forward (he played well), and Thuram (perhaps the best French defender of all-time, but exposed by Holland as over the hill at 36) replaced in the center of the defense. But shockingly, Domenech replaced Thuram with his Abidal, his reserve left back.
To be sure, his choices were limited. France’s two reserve center backs are Boumsong, who was so poor for Newcastle, and Squillaci, who has little experience at this level (Domenech chose to exclude Mexes, who excels for Roma, from his squad). But to me it seemed clear that the powerful Boumsong, having played well everywhere except Newcastle, offered the best hope of containing Toni, Italy’s handful of a center forward.
At this level, blatant selection errors usually are exposed, and that certainly was the case yesterday. In the 24th minute, Abidal found himself up against Toni one-on-one. As Toni expertly controlled an entry pass and turned menacingly on goal, Abidal essentially mugged him. The referee had no choice but to award a penalty kick. And since Abidal was the last defender, the rules required that he be sent off. When Pirlo put away the penalty, France was a goal and a man down. As expected, there proved to be no way back. In the end, it was Italy 2 France 0.
Italy thus advances to the quarterfinals, where they will face Spain. They will do so without Pirlo and Gattuso, both of whom are suspended for having accumulated two yellow cards. Given Spain’s exquisite midfield, that’s a bad development for the match from a neutral point of view, but at least it permits speculation about Donadoni’s player selection. The likely replacements are Ambrosini and Camoranesi.
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