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Old Foes Prepare for Crucial Clash with Euro Survival at Stake

France go into their do or die clash with Italy in Zurich on Tuesday, June 17 beset by doubt, reports of internal strife and player fatigue. Italy, meanwhile, remain positive despite coming under intense pressure.

The badges of France and Itlay

France and Italy face a very different battle to the one in the summer of 2006

The backdrop to this latest installment of the rivalry between the old foes could not be more different to their last meeting in a major tournament.

Back in 2006, Italy overcame France at Berlin's majestic Olympic stadium to be crowned champions of the world.

On Tuesday at Euro 2008, those two same soccer superpowers roll up their sleeves in a back alley scrap for a route out of Group C on the heels of already qualified Holland.

Wide margin defeats to the Dutch (3-0 and 4-1 respectively) and 1-1 and 0-0 draws with Romania left Italy and France requiring a win and Romania to draw or lose to Holland.

Given their inferior goal difference that is the only way France can make it.

Italy would still have a chance if they draw with France, and Romania lose, leaving them both with two points.

Here the permutations require the services of a rocket scientist, but in a nutshell Italy would go through if they produce a score draw with France and Romania lose.

The reward is a quarter-final date with Group D winners Spain in Vienna next Sunday.

Shaky rearguard without Vieira's protection again

France keeper Gregory Coupet, reeling from France's heaviest defeat in almost three decades against the Dutch, summed up the somber mood in Les Bleus' camp.

"Today we've got our heads down," he said at the team's training headquarters in Chatel-Saint-Denis on Sunday, the day after the Holland game. "There's tiredness, questions being asked....we need time to breathe and to prepare quickly for Italy."

France's Patrick Vieira, left, shields the ball from Portugal's Luis Figo during the World Cup semifinal soccer match between Portugal and France in the World Cup stadium in Munich, Germany, Wednesday, July 5, 2006.

France will be without their captain Patrick Vieira

France, whose famed defense, the traditional bedrock of Raymond Domenech's side, was embarrassingly torn apart by Holland, will continue to be without talismanic captain Patrick Vieira who missed the opening two games with a left thigh problem.

Domenech has a real tactical conundrum on his hands as he's already tried 4-4-2 and 4-3-2-1 with different players - while his opposite number Roberto Donadoni made no fewer than five changes for the Azzurri's second game against Romania.

Hero Buffon accepts fragile lifeline

Italy would already be down and out if it hadn't been for keeper Gianluigi Buffon's heroics in saving a late penalty from Adrian Mutu.

"This is the match of our lives," said the Italian keeper. "After suffering a defeat such as we did against Holland you either roll over or you appeal to your pride and that's what we did against Romania. Like ourselves, France will be surprised only to have mustered one point after two matches. But it seems that Italy are on better form as we have come off a good match."

Italy's Gianluigi Buffon reacts during the group C match between the Netherlands and Italy in Bern

Gianluigi Buffon was beaten three times against the Dutch

Both sides know each other well with France coming out on top when they met in the Euro 2000 final only for Italy to gain handsome compensation in the 2006 World Cup. They were also drawn together in qualifying for this competition.

Thierry Henry, who was deployed as a lone striker in that game, reflecting on the monumental task lying ahead in Zurich, said: "Now we know that we have to beat Italy and hope for good news from the other match. It's 'do-able' but it's going to be a knife edge game with the Italians. We still have a possibility of qualifying, we're not defeated.

"This is not the first time we've been in this situation and I hope once more we can lift our heads and get out of it. We'll try and prepare the best possible for Italy," he added.

Donadoni convinced his players are up for it

Up at their Euro headquarters in Austria, Donadoni said he could sense the determination in his players to pull off a Houdini-style escape against Les Bleus.

"We have to beat France," the former AC Milan winger said. "It is a crucial match because when you still have a chance to qualify, you have to push yourself to the limit. I saw already at training...that the players are determined to prove how good they are against the French.

From left, forward Antonio Cassano, Alessandro Del Piero, and Mauro Camoranesi stretch during a training session

Italy's players train for "the match of their lives"

"They have a real hunger to prepare in the best possible manner for this challenge, which will dictate whether or not we progress or not," he added. "We are ready. It is the last match of the group stages, we know what is at stake and we will put our heart and soul into winning what is a key match."

Donadoni said statistics and records mean nothing in a game like this.

"It has been said that Italy has not managed to beat France in a normal game for 30 years," Donadoni said. "But the statistics, quite frankly, aren't important. Before last week, it had been 30 years since the Netherlands last beat Italy and we all know what happened there."

Striking dilemma adds to Italian woes

As his side have scored just one goal in two games, Donadoni admitted he is considering playing Sampdoria striker Antonio Cassano up front alongside Bayern Munich's Luca Toni. Having used Udinese's Antonio Di Natale against the Dutch and Juventus star Alessandro Del Piero against Romania, the Azzurri's forwards have yet to fire in the tournament.

Luca Toni and Antonio Cassano

Which of Italy's strikers will be in the pink on Tuesday?

"You will see who I select on the day," Donadoni said. "Cassano reminds me of myself when I was playing, but he plays more forward, while I had other responsibilities. He doesn't help out so much at getting the ball back, which irritates me sometimes as soccer is also about playing when you don't have the ball."

Donadoni insists all concentration will be in Zurich rather than the other Group C clash between the Dutch and Romanians in Berne.

"You can't afford to think about the other match, those things are out of our control," said the Italian. "All that worries us is to do the best we can. After that we may not have our destiny in our own hands, but we just have to get on with the job in hand.

"Our suitcases aren't packed yet, they are still open."

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