Midfield remains Italy�s concern
�French exit has lessons for cricket�

June 13: 
The World Cup was getting ready for the obituary of yet another heavyweight and it took an upset in the other match of the group for Italy to squeeze through. As it turned out in the end, Italy would have advanced even with a 0-1 defeat with Ecuador spiking Croatia, but luck will not smile on them everyday. The 1-1 draw against Mexico is enough for the moment, but instead of celebrating, Italy would do well to concentrate on the areas of concern.

The defeat against Croatia, where Italy surrendered a 1-0 lead, had exposed the frailties in their midfield and if things had improved, they were not visible against Mexico. Like always, they were allowing the opponents room inside their own half and this may prove dangerous against better teams. Also, there is not enough supply for the forwards. These things go unnoticed as long as the team doesn�t lose, but must be sorted out if it concerns title-contenders.

Italy opted for something like a 1-3-3-3 formation against Mexico as early calculations indicated they had to win. Statistics suggest they were the dominating side in the first half in terms of shots at goal and Italy also earned more corners and free-kicks. What the figures won�t reveal is that very few of those chances resulted from their midfield combination. Passes from the deep started most of their attacks and they were outnumbered inside the Mexican half as the midfielders hardly moved up.

Desperation forced them to sacrifice a man there in order to push in an extra attacker and it helped Mexico gain numerical advantage over the greater part of the pitch. Playing in the traditional 4-4-2 style, Mexico had effectively more men around the centre circle who showed better mobility in moving forward and falling back.

By getting enough men behind the ball during the Italian forays, Mexico succeeded in blunting their early edge and while venturing forward, they found easy access up to the Italian penalty box. This is something Italians prefer but it looks too dangerous in this World Cup full of unforeseen results. This plan suits the team protecting a lead but for a better part of Thursday�s match, Italy were chasing the equaliser.

Defensive skill has seen Italy through on many occasions and once again, their plan is based on it. They generally don�t allow the opponent strikers more than a touch inside the penalty box but Mexico succeeded in converting that single touch into a goal which is not an encouraging sign for coach Giovanni Trapattoni. Too many openings have been created against his team and he may have to think of adding muscle in the middle-thirdto cut down the number of forays into his penalty area.

On the attacking front, accuracy in long passes helped Italy reach the rival box on so many occasions but the strikers struggled in the crowd. Christian Vieri is the principal marksman but neither he nor Filippo Inzaghi can shrug off the defenders in one-to-one sprints. They aren�t exceptional dribblers either and that�s why Italy couldn�t score as many times as they threatened to. Francesco Totti is hailed as the most potent weapon of this team but he was off-colour against Mexico and but for Alessandro del Piero�s opportunistic finish, there was little to cheer for Italy as far as attack is concerned.

Mexico were organised and the series of passes that led to their goal was a delight. Even the finish was exceptional since the striker had time for just one touch from a difficult angle and though it was not spectacular, the strike was of rare quality.

On the positive side for Italy, they have done well to come back after the defeat and maybe the factor of luck that eluded the fallen giants is with them. They need more than that to launch a serious assault at the title.


Calcutta, June 13: 
Just under eight months remain for the first ball in cricket�s most ambitious World Cup and, in the Indian captain�s view, 1998 winner France�s shock elimination from the on-going soccer World Cup has a lesson for cricket too.

�At this point, it�s difficult to say who will start favourites in our World Cup but, yes, France�s ouster has taught us that the past means nothing. Indeed, I�ve consistently maintained the past is history and that we always need to take the present into account,� Sourav Ganguly told The Telegraph Thursday.

Speaking after daughter Sana�s annaprasan � the toddler�s earlier name, Sakshi, has been �dropped� � he added: �It�s the form of the 14 teams just prior to the (February 9-March 23) World Cup that will count. Really, that should largely determine who stands where and how��

[Champions in 1983 and semi-finalists in 1987 and 1996, India have been clubbed with holders Australia, Pakistan, England, Zimbabwe, The Netherlands and rookies Namibia in Pool A. South Africa, the West Indies, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Kenya and Canada are in Pool B.

Significantly, 1983 onwards, every edition has seen a new champion. Only the West Indies, led by the peerless Clive Lloyd, retained their 1975 crown in 1979.]

Soccer, of course, is an obsession with Sourav and while he is a �hundred per cent� Brazil fan, France�s exit has left him stunned as well.

�Where sentiment and emotions are concerned, I�m for Brazil. However, had somebody asked me, on the eve of this World Cup, to bet on one team, I would probably have put my money on France. The holders� first-round departure has definitely changed the very face of this edition.�

While it�s customary to talk of too much cricket, the Indian captain made the point about whether �excessive club commitments� had left the French stars fatigued.

�An injury did make Zinedine Zidane unavailable for the first two matches (Senegal and Uruguay), but some of the other regulars didn�t exactly look fresh� The Desaillys and Petits, for example� Any post-mortem must surely focus on whether the tops guns took to the World Cup physically and mentally tired, whether the club-issue had a huge bearing��

Sourav and quite a few of his teammates, by the way, are pretty familiar with the fatigue-factor.

Though Zidane couldn�t make an impression � in fact, a thigh injury kept him out of the first two games � the French icon stays on Sourav�s list of most admired. Brazilians Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo as also England�s Michael Owen and David Beckham are �special� too.

Incidentally, till cricket took centrestage, Sourav (who idolised Diego Maradona, �the ultimate�) was himself quite a livewire upfront. Today, however, he has no regrets about turning his back on soccer.


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