The World Cup final on Sunday presents the most evenly balanced match up of the tournament (well, I suppose Saudi Arabia v. Angola was an even match up too). There is not much that separates the two sides, but I still have to pick a winner. I'm torn between wanting to see Zidane, Vieira, Barthez, Thuram and Henry win their second World Cup and seeing players like Del Piero, Pirlo, Cannavaro, Totti and Buffon get the world championship their excellence deserves.
Italy has been putting on one of the best defensive performances in World Cup history. I think Fabio Cannavaro has been the best player of the World Cup and Gianluca Zambrotta hasn't been too far behind. Cannavaro hasn't put a foot wrong in the entire tournament, making some timely interceptions and covering whenever the midfield gifts possession to the opposition to spark a counter attack. Unfortunately, offensive players get all the plaudits so the focus for Italy will be on their forward players like Totti, Toni and Gilardino.
France has witnessed a renaissance in the knockout stages. After their first two games I thought they might not even make it out the group stages, but they overcame a talented Spanish team and thanks to Roberto Carlos' statuesque figure on a France free kick they beat the Brazilians. Despite tiring against Portugal in the last 25 minutes the Zinedine Zidane penalty was enough to overcome the Portuguese.
When I look at the two teams I don't see any weaknesses. The only appreciable difference between France and Italy is that Buffon is an excellent keeper and Barthez is a joke. The French have won tournaments before (World Cup '98 and Euro '00) in spite of Barthez so this probably should not hold them back too much. Interestingly enough, the French overcame the Italians on their way to both of those titles. In '98 France eliminated Italy in the quarterfinals on penalty kicks and in Euro 2000 a David Trezeguet golden goal was the difference between the two sides.
Looking at France, I can see some of their players like Florent Malouda and Eric Abidal bottling on the big stage. Malouda and Abidal have been providing width for the French down the left side but they will have to overcome Mauro Camoranesi and Gianluca Zambrotta in order to do so. After watching Zambrotta dominate Philip Lahm, Bern Schneider and Bastian Schweinsteiger, my money would be on Zambrotta to continue his play against lesser lights of Abidal and Malouda.
The key then for France, as it has been this entire tournament will be how well Zidane and Henry plays. If they are going to beat the team with the best defensive record in the tournament they will need their best players to produce their best game. Successful attacks from the French have come from Vieira winning the ball then distributing it to Zidane who then beats his man and gets it to either Ribery or Henry. I think France will have some difficulty with this because Italy will likely employ a strategy similar to the one France used against Brazil. Gattuso will likely shadow Zidane with some help from Perotta or Camoranesi if necessary. It is important to nullify Zidane because without him the French can't get anything going from the middle of the field. Players like Vieira and Makelele are essential because their defensive abilities stop you from losing games but they lack the necessary ability going forward to win you games. If Zidane is marked out of the game then Henry will have to drop deeper to collect the ball and run at defenders with some space, something he is good at. I think if he picks up the ball deep he can cause Grosso and Camoranesi problems out on the left side and cause some disorganization in the Italian defense.
The keys for Italy will be how well Totti and Pirlo can launch the counter attacks. Once the ball is won by Gattuso he will be looking to outlet it to Pirlo who wil get it to Totti quickly. It comes down to whether Totti and Pirlo have enough to elude Makelele and Vieira, the two outstanding defensive midfielders of their generation(with apologieis to Roy Keane). The Italians look like they have been getting stronger as the tournament goes on. With each game they have gradually improved while the French against Portugal looked like a tired team that did just enough to get the victory. What it comes down to on Sunday is one game with both teams looking to play their best. The question I ask myself is this: If both teams play the best they can play, who will win? I think that answer is France. If Zidane and Henry are on their game there are few players still breathing who can stop them. If my net worth depended on it who would I pick? France, without a doubt. In big games Zidane is always ready to perform. Two goals in the World Cup final in 98 and a spectacular volley in the Champions League final in 2002 is proof of that. However, I think this Italian team has been playing excellent this tournament and I think they will have just enough to win the game. I think Italy wins this game and Fabio Cannavaro gets his name on the Golden Ball.