Italy, France to clash again

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src=' ' class='caption'> Two months after Italy played France in the World Cup final, they're squaring up to face each other again. This time on the road to Euro 2008.

updated: February 25, 2007 11:36 IST
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Two months after Italy played France in the World Cup final, they're squaring up to face each other again. This time on the road to Euro 2008. When the Italians host Lithuania in Naples and France goes to Tbilisi to face Georgia on Saturday, the Group B games will seem like warmups to a rematch on Wednesday of their dramatic World Cup final in Berlin on July 9. AC Milan midfielder Gennaro Gattuso noted it can't be a true repeat because the game in Paris is not a final, but that hasn't dampened expectations. "This is just a game like all the other three points on the line," Gattuso said. "The rematch will be a European or a World Cup final." Italy captured its fourth World Cup title by winning a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw. But the final will always be remembered for Zinedine Zidane head-butting Marco Materazzi in retaliation for the Italian defender's insults. Although Zidane has retired and Materazzi misses the game through suspension, memories of the final are so fresh that the match could lead to trouble on and off the field. The French will surely be looking for some kind of payback. Italy's new coach, former AC Milan midfielder Roberto Donadoni, has left nine of the World Cup-winning squad out of the games against Lithuania and France, including Francesco Totti, Luca Toni and Alessandro Del Piero. With the Italian league season not due to start until September 9, the World Cup squad had a long spell of recuperation and many players are nowhere near match fit. AC Milan's Alessandro Nesta is still missing because of the thigh injury that kept him out of the late stages of the World Cup. But Donadoni has recalled striker Antonio Cassano, who is returning to form at Real Madrid under new coach Fabio Capello. He was the team's top scorer with two goals at Euro 2004 in Portugal but has not played for the national team since June 2005. Familiar French While the Italians have changed their coach and many familiar faces on the sidelines, the French still have Raymond Domenech in charge and only Zidane missing. Defender Lilian Thuram, who has moved to FC Barcelona, and Chelsea midfielder Claude Makelele were expected to follow Zidane through the exit door, at least so far as the national team was concerned. But both are still around. France faces a Georgia side that opened its qualifying campaign with a 6-0 victory at the Faeroe Islands. Provided France comes through Saturday's game with three points and no major injury problems, Les Bleus should have all of their big names available when they face the Azzurri next week. Although France-Italy is the highlight game on Wednesday, Saturday's opening round of qualifiers has no matchups of powerhouse teams. Germany, with Joachim Loew in charge instead of Juergen Klinsmann, begins the long journey toward the 2008 European Championship in Austria and Switzerland with a tricky home game against Ireland in Stuttgart. By contrast, England should overwhelm Andorra at Old Trafford in Steve McClaren's first competitive game as head coach. Spain is expected to post a high-scoring victory over Liechtenstein at Badajoz, and the Netherlands should be too strong for Luxembourg, even on the road. With Pavel Nedved retired from international soccer for the second time, the Czech Republic hosts Wales and hopes that Ryan Giggs doesn't repeat his Manchester United form. A total of 21 games are being staged on Saturday, with 21 more on Wednesday. Qualifying began on August 16 with three matches, Belgium held 0-0 at home by Kazakhstan, Macedonia winning 1-1 at Estonia, and Georgia crushing the Faeroe Islands 6-0. The top two from each group qualify for the final tournament. Brazil and Argentina are also in Europe playing friendlies, and face each other at Arsenal's 60,000-seat Emirates Stadium on Sunday. The Brazilians, now with Dunga as coach, then face Wales at Tottenham's White Hart Lane on Tuesday. (AP)