Italy through at French expense
World champions Italy beat old foes France 2-0 here on Tuesday to go through to the UEFA EURO 2008 quarter-finals as Group C runners up with a helping hand from Holland whilst their rivals and 2006 FIFA World Cup finalists exited.
The French endured a wretched night, suffering two major blows in the first 25 minutes, with first star midfielder Franck Ribery stretchered off then Eric Abidal red-carded with Andrea Pirlo converting the penalty.
Daniele de Rossi added Italy's second after the break to send the world champion's on a last eight date with Spain in Vienna on Sunday.
The win would have been inconsequential if the Romanians had
beaten Holland, but the Dutch instead beat Romania 2-0 to make it
three wins out of three.
Italy coach Roberto Donadoni said that despite the outside pressures after two successive poor results, a 3-0 defeat by the Dutch and a 1-1 draw with Romania, there had always been inner belief in the squad.
"We have never lost hope, even in the most difficult
times," said the former AC Milan and Italy midfielder.
"We put in a good performance and the team was cohesive and
came together. I never had any worries about the Dutch as I know
well the spirit of Marco van Basten (who was his team-mate at AC
Despite the catastrophic defeat France coach Raymond Domenech, remained stoic in defeat.
"I am proud of the players," said the 56-year-old, whose future must be in doubt even though his contract runs till 2010. "The manner they stuck to it despite all these circumstances which are so similar to the World Cup final, lose to a penalty again and a sending-off (it was in fact rather different, a penalty shootout at 1-1 and Zinedine Zidane was sent off in the 2006 World Cup final).
"They showed energy. They showed something, its a pity because the circumstances were against us.
"This team has something in its guts, it has qualities. We were 10 against 11 and we had also lost Ribery. This team has a real future and potential," added Domenech, who rather bizarrely knowing he needed to win the game replaced attacking midfielder Samir Nasri 10 minutes after he had come on for Ribery with defender Jean-Alain Boumsong when Abidal was sent off.
For Italy, searching for their first European title in 40 years, this victory was consolation after the world champions failed to get past the first round at EURO 2000.
For France elimination, with just one goal scored, was the
unwelcome prize for a campaign dogged by reported internal strife,
player fatigue and controversy over injured captain Patrick Vieira.
This game was billed as 'our final' by France manager Raymond Domenech, and it could well be his with 1998 French FIFA World Cup winner Emmanuel Petit for one saying heads should roll.
Domenech made three changes from the side swept aside by Holland, with defenders Lilian Thuram and Willy Sagnol replaced by Abidal and Francois Clerc, and Karim Benzema joining Thierry Henry in attack with midfielder Florent Malouda dropping to the bench.
Roberto Donadoni unveiled an attacking line-up, dropping Alessandro del Piero in favour of EURO 2008 debutant Antonio Cassano and picking Gennaro Gattuso in favour of Mauro Camoranesi in midfield.
At kick-off a perfect rainbow enveloped the Letzigrund stadium as both teams went in search of their pot of gold.
As early as the third minute Italy had a live chance when Luca Toni latched on to a ball punted up field from deep in the Italian defence but the Bayern Munich striker's finish lacked direction.
Shortly after France lost Ribery, their best player up to now. Toni's Bayern teammate was stretchered off on a buggy after going over on his left ankle in a tackle on Gianluca Zambrotta.
Coupet then did well to deny Pirlo's curling 20 metre freekick from the right flank.
The game's turning point came in the 24th minute when Toni, at full stretch trying to latch on to a lob, was tackled and felled from behind by Abidal in the box.
Slovakian referee Lubos Michel had no hesitation in pulling out a red card, with Pirlo blasting his shot high into the left hand corner.
Abidal's sending off evoked wretched memories for France of the last time these two countries met in a major competition, in the FIFA World Cup final, when Zinedine Zidane was given his marching orders for headbutting Marco Materazzi.
That though came in the closing minutes and with over an hour's play left here Domenech decided to shore up his defence, taking off Nasri for Jean-Alain Boumsong.
Coupet then performed wonders to tip out with his fingers Fabio Grosso's 25m freekick.
Up at the other end Pirlo was booked for an ugly challenge on Benzema, his second of the competition which rules the AC Milan playmaker out of the quarter-final with Spain.
As news filtered through from Berne early in the second half that Holland had gone a goal up against Romania a huge cheer went up from the Italian fans.
And on the pitch the Azzurri celebrated that news when de Rossi struck a 30m freekick which flew past Coupet after the ball was diverted on its course by Henry's foot.
Domenech introduced Nicolas Anelka for Govou in a desperate bid to salvage the match.
Then not for the first time in this competition Buffon performed miracles to tip out a Benzema special from the edge of the area which was heading into the top far corner.