• Italy keeper Andrea Zaccagno was the star of Italy’s 2-1 defeat of France in the Round of 16
  • Zaccagno was originally his side’s third-choice keeper
  • The French squad, meanwhile, featured two experienced keepers

Every great team has a great goalkeeper. And in the lead-up to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017, France coach Ludovic Batelli repeatedly stressed the point that he had three excellent exponents of the trade at his disposal. In contrast, their Round-of-16 opponents Italy were deprived of the services of Gianluigi Donnarumma and Alex Meret when they were called up to the senior squad, leaving third-choice custodian Andrea Zaccagno with the job of defending the Azzurini goal.

It seemed, then, that the French would have a slight advantage over the Italians when the two sides met in the last 16 on Thursday. While Bleuets custodians Alban Lafont and Paul Bernardoni have both cut their teeth in Ligue 1 with Toulouse and Bordeaux respectively, Zaccagno has played only Serie B football with Pro Vercelli, the side to whom he was loaned out by Torino last season. And yet, it was the Nazionale man who excelled on the day, playing a huge part as the Italians got the better of the side that beat them in last year’s UEFA European Under-19 Championship final.

“One of the reasons we won the match was Andrea. He had a great game and we should be very thankful to him,” said Italy coach Alberico Evani after his team’s 2-1 win.

A huge admirer of Juventus’ Gianluigi Buffon, despite the rivalry between the two Turin clubs, man of the hour Zaccagno gave his views to FIFA.com: “I’m very pleased with our performance. We were very scared of France, especially after that defeat at the European Championships. But we all played well. We’re savouring the moment, though we’ll have to start thinking about the next match soon.”

While the Bleuets keepers are hardly rivals, it was clear from the start of Korea Republic 2017 that competition for the first-choice slot would be fierce. “The easiest thing to do would have been to leave either Paul or Alban at home,” added Batelli, himself a former professional keeper. “But they both deserved to come and it would have left us short in the goalkeeping department if I hadn’t brought them both. I have two excellent keepers – three with Quentin [Braat], who has a very important role to play too. After all, managing egos and rotating players is what I’m paid for. It’s my job to make them understand and to get them to accept it.”

Keeping Italy on course
While Zaccagno was between the posts for all Italy’s group matches, Batelli chose to rotate his keepers, with Lafont playing in France’s opening match and Bernardoni donning the gloves for the next two, without either of them conceding a single goal. “There’s always a little bit of competition between goalkeepers. That’s normal,” said Bernardoni after France’s second group game. “There’s no problem between us, though. We work well together.”

“We get on well,” said Lafont, confirming that view. “We have a really good understanding.” 

It was Lafont who got the nod for the Italy match. Receiving little defensive protection, the Toulouse man was beaten twice, with one of Italy’s goal going through his legs. “I don’t have any regrets about the way I’ve handled my keepers. I chose Alban today because it was his turn to play – as simple as that,” explained Batelli after the match. “We decided to rotate and Paul was down to play the next match, Alban the semis, and then I was going to decide who would play the final. Unfortunately, I won’t have to make that decision now.”

It was taken out of his hands by another goalkeeper, with Zaccagno pulling off save after save and causing no little anguish to France striker Jean-Kevin Augustin, who teased the Italian custodian after converting the 37th-minute penalty that momentarily drew the French level. “Yes, I didn’t really understand why he did that. It’s nothing. I’m not offended or anything,” Zaccagno later explained. “I just stayed focused and I’m happy I did my job.” Having kept the French at bay, his objective now is to keep Italy on course to become world champions.