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A World Cup Prediction: Italy to Beat Argentina in Finals
By Grahame L. Jones
(c) 2002, Los Angeles Times


This could be the World Cup where Giovanni Trapattoni meets
Admiral Yi Shun-Sin … hopefully not in person, as the venerable
admiral died in 1598.

Be that as it may, Italy's coach still might find it useful
to refer to the deeds performed by the admiral more than four
centuries ago. Yi was the inventor of the ``turtle ships.`

These ingenious devices were nothing more than wooden ships
armored by encasing them in a sort of shell-hence the name. Yi
used them to such good effect that he defeated a superior force
of Japanese vessels and became a Korean maritime hero in the
process.

What, you might understandably be asking, does this have to
do with the World Cup? Well, nothing and everything.

What we are doing here is making a case for Italy, which
very well might not need any help at all. If it does, though,
here it is, free of charge.

Defense has long been Italy's forte. The country didn't win
the World Cup three times simply by singing arias at opponents;
it had to shut them up too. The names of Italy's defensive
heroes ring down through the ages: Franco Baresi being the most
recent and Paolo Maldini the most current.

Then there is Trapattoni himself. Known affectionately as
``Trap'' … a name Yi would have enjoyed … Trapattoni is Italy's
most successful club coach of all time.

A quick glance at his resume shows seven Italian league
titles, one German league title, two Italian Cups, the European
Champions Cup, three UEFA Cups, one European Super Cup and one
Toyota/Intercontinental Cup.

But, sadly, no World Cup.

Not until now.

Italy's team bristles with offensive weapons, just like Yi's
famous turtle ships. There are, for instance, no fewer than six
top-class forwards on the Italian roster: Francesco Totti,
Alessandro Del Piero, Marco Delvecchio, Filippo Inzaghi,
Vincenzo Montella and, perhaps best of all, Christian Vieri.

Trap doesn't need to tell his forwards anything. What he
needs to do is build a shell around them. A defensive perimeter
so tight that nothing can penetrate, and even if it does, there
still will be Gianluigi Buffon or Francesco Toldo in goal to
handle the odd shot or two.

It's a can't-miss plan, an armor-plated way to the
silverware. Here, then, is the route map to Italy's fourth
World Cup:

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First Round:

Group A:

Mon dieu! Is there nothing that can stop the French? Not
here, there isn't. Coach Roger Lemerre's world champions win
the group with ease. Denmark wilts in the heat and humidity and
Uruguay, deservedly or not, grabs second. Senegal is left
thinking how nice it was to take part.

Group B:

Spain, still pawing at the dust like an angry bull over its
last miserable World Cup effort, gores everyone in sight.
Paraguay's Jose Luis Chilavert finds he is not invincible after
all. South Africa trips up and tiny Slovenia finds itself
through to the last 16.

Group C:

World Cups are not arranged for Brazil to go out in the
first round. Never have been, never will be. Ronaldo, Rivaldo,
Ronaldinho and company run circles around the rest. Turkey is
stuffed by Brazil but has enough to finish ahead of Costa Rica
and China.

Group D:

The Portuguese navigated their way to the Far East centuries
ago, so navigating a way through these shallow waters is no
challenge at all. Can you say Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Pauleta?
Second place? Well, it won't really matter who gets it, so why
not say the United States ahead of South Korea and Poland?

Group E:

Don't be fooled by Germany's tragic tale of injuries and
lowered expectations. Coach Rudi Voeller still has plenty left
in reserve and is wily enough to prefer finishing second behind
Cameroon and thus avoiding Italy in the quarterfinals. Ireland
and Saudi Arabia are just along to provide color.

Group F:

The so-called ``group of death'' is overrated. The Swedes
are ordinary as usual and the Nigerians are disorganized as
usual. The much touted Argentina-England rematch in Sapporo
turns out to be a dud. The South Americans boast about winning
the group and the English whine about being the runner-up.
Nothing new there.

Group G:

Italy has been given virtually free passage to the
quarterfinals, thanks to the draw. Nothing here will give Vieri
and company any trouble, and goalkeeper Buffon will be lucky if
he even sees the ball. Croatia's doddering elders hold on for
second, while Mexico and Ecuador head for the airport.

Group H:

Among this lot it would be almost a blessing if Coach
Philippe Troussier's Japan won it all, but it doesn't have the
goods to do better than finish second. That means the dull men
from Belgium probably will prevail, leaving the Russians and
Tunisians free to do some shopping before shipping out.

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Second Round:

Cameroon-Slovenia: Patrick Mboma gallops through the mud …
the rainy season has arrived by now … and slays the Slovenians,
whose own star, Zlatko Zahovic, is totally eclipsed.

Italy-United States: Perhaps that warmup game in Sicily
wasn't such a bright idea after all. The Italians know the
Americans' many weaknesses and exploit them to the fullest.
Ciao, Clint Mathis.

Spain-Germany: It's about that time again, the moment when
Raul disappears and the Spanish fold like a tent in a
windstorm. The Germans chose this route intentionally, and
Bayer Leverkusen's Michael Ballack finally gets some revenge on
the Real Madrid gang.

Portugal-Croatia: Those red-and-white checkered flags that
saluted Davor Suker and company all the way to the semifinals
in 1998 finally are lowered as the Croatians bow before a
rampant Portuguese team superbly marshaled by Costa & Co.

France-England: A David Beckham goal off a free kick throws
an early scare into the French, but they turn up the heat when
Djibril Cisse replaces Thierry Henry and win by two clear
goals, one thanks to an English goalkeeping blunder.

Brazil-Japan: Having achieved their ambition by reaching the
second round, the Japanese stand around and watch in awe as the
Brazilians show what they really can do if they ignore the
instructions of dour Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. Ronaldo gets a
hat trick.

Argentina-Uruguay: Ugly, ugly, ugly. The referees who have
had it relatively easy up until now have their hands full in
this River Plate classic. The Uruguayans kick everyone in
sight, the Argentines do the same but manage a couple of Hernan
Crespo goals as well to go through.

Belgium-Turkey: With the Japanese knocked out of the
tournament the day before an no one much interested in seeing
Nico Van Kerkhoven tackle Abdullah Ercan, FIFA is reduced to
giving away tickets for this yawner in Miyagi. Oh, yes, Belgium
wins.

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Quarterfinals:

Cameroon-Italy: Every tournament produces at least one
classic game and this is it. The Africans' power,
unpredictability and enthusiasm has them attacking for 90
minutes. The Italians use the counter while working out of
their defensive shell and prevail, 3-2.

Germany-Portugal: Coach Antonio Oliveira changes Portugal's
tactics and uses two forwards instead of one. The move
bewilders the predictable Germans, but it still takes a
brilliant goal by Nuno Gomes to beat the tournament's top
goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn, as the Portuguese advance.

France-Brazil: The much anticipated rematch of the 1998
final turns out to be less thrilling than it should be. The
French, minus injured Zinedine Zidane, have run out of steam
and the Brazilians, saving themselves for the semifinals, are
content with a 1-0 win.

Argentina-Belgium: Knowing that Brazil awaits, Coach Marcelo
Bielsa's squad turns it up a notch to play some mind games with
the Brazilians. Juan Sebastian Veron is in top form and Gabriel
Batistuta notches a pair of goals in an easy win.

-0-




Semifinals:

Italy-Portugal: Curiously, the Portuguese revert to a single
striker, Pauleta, and the Italians have no problems containing
him. Luis Figo causes them some problems, scoring a superb goal
from distance, but Italy prevails on two Vieri goals.

Brazil-Argentina: Scolari plays it scared, using his
peculiar five-man defense and insisting that the forwards get
back to help out. Denied their freedom to improvise, the
Brazilians sulk, especially Rivaldo, and go down by the game's
only goal.

-0-




Final:

Italy-Argentina: It's raining heavily in Yokohama.
Trapattoni throws up the shutters, bolts on the armor plate and
closes up shop. It's scoreless at the half. It's scoreless
after 90 minutes. It's scoreless after extra time. It goes to
penalty kicks and Buffon finally earns his keep with three
extraordinary saves. ... The turtle ships have won. Did you
have any doubt?
 
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