Monday, April 29, 2013

The first match of Italy was against France and nobody expected much: a tough battle most likely, the Italians trying to kill the speedy and creative French football. The line-ups suggested precisely that – a dull, defensive Italian play, heavily focused on the French midfield. France came out with three creative playmakers and three strikers. The Italian response was clearly defensive-minded: 4-4-2. It looked like going straight back to catenaccio – Benetti, a defensive midfileder, Tardelli, just as easily playing pure defense, and the universal Causio, who was capable of playing as a winger, but also could be effective defensive midfielder. By the names, it appeared that Italy will play its usual football – waiting for the opposition to make a mistake, destroying whatever creativity the French attempted, and hoping for a counterattack in which elegant Antognoni would supply a penetrating pass to Bettega to score. Looked painfully familiar strategy, with Antognoni in the place of Mazzola and Bettega instead of Anastasi. The yet unknown Paolo Rossi seemingly was on the field just to make the numbers. The very concept proved outdated and entirely useless four years ago... and the beginning of the match supported such a view: Lacombe scored for France in the 38th second!

And with this goal thee predictions ended – Italy played surprisingly entertaining attacking football. To be sure, Italy was strong in defense and paid close attention to the skilful French midfielders, but it was not stiff defensive game at all. The Italian mind was on attack and perhaps the French made a mistake by not using a defensive midfielder. It was difficult ti stop the Italians and although France was not outplayed, Italy attacked relentlessly until scoring an equalizer and then one more goal. Paolo Rossi scored the first goal and the substitute Zaccarelli gave the lead to Italy in the 51st minute. France tried to score again, even making substitutes with precisely that in mind, but no luck – Italy won 2-1. What was most important was the Italian play – it surprised everyone.

Surprise, surprise – unknown Paolo Rossi, not even 22 years old yet, and playing for modest Vicenza scored the equalizer. True, Causio and Bettega created the opportunity, but a goalscorer is a goalscorer, and the world had to start learning a new name.

The second match against Hungary favoured Italy – the Hungarians were without their most important players, Nyilasi and Torocsik, sent off at the end of the match with Argentina. Bearzot made no changes, which made sense for more than the obvious reason (never change a winning squad): versatile Tardelli and Causio were capable of playing whatever was needed to be played – on this occasion, less defensive work and more attacking one, Tardelli influential in midfield, and Causio almost a winger. Once again Rossi scored the first goal for Italy – in the 34th minute. Bettega scored the second in the next minute and Hungary was practically beaten. Benetti made it three in the second half and then Bearzot relaxed and replaced his most dangerous striker Bettega. Hungary managed to score a goal from a penalty, but with ten minutes left it was just saving grace. Italy played highly entertaining football again.
A picture suggesting anything but traditional Italy – a formidable attack, such strength and determination not associated with Italian football at all. Hungarian defense appears to be cut like butter. From left: Csapo, Rossi, Martos, and Bettega unstoppable.

Two matches – two wins. The last group match was immaterial, for Argentina also had two wins and both teams already qualified. Given the unpredictability of the games in the other groups, calculations for 'easier' semi-final group were hardly possible, at least for the Italians. Argentina was more interested of winning the otherwise meaningless match, for the first placed team was to play in Buenos Aires, which was an advantage for the hosts. But Italy had pride, plus appetite for more by now – the team was in excellent form, no changes made. Same players, but different tactic this time – or rather the same tactic used against Hungary, but surprising for Argentina, for they expected more defensive Italian play. Instead, Italy played 4-3-3. This time Argentina played well and the result was one of the most entertaining fixtures of the whole tournament. Open, attacking football, both teams eager and strong.
Argentina tried hard, but unfortunately was unable to score. The only goal in the match was Italian – and this time it was Roberto Bettega, already the most dangerous Italian player. Bettega was great so far in every match and already considered one of the top players of the finals. Italy finished with three wins at first place. Argentina had to play in Rosario in the next round, but this was less important than the pleasant discovery of fantastic Italian team. The match with Argentina was so good, many observers called it the real final of the tournament. It may be too much to consider it the best match of the 1978 World Cup, but it was outstanding game and certainly among the top 4-5 matches played this year.