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Italy Takes Control in Group B

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 1998; Page B8

MONTPELLIER, France, June 17 — To the east, Marseille is cleaning up the wreckage inflicted by troublemakers. To the west, Toulouse is trembling as it awaits their arrival this weekend. But in between, in this 1,000-year-old city on France's sun-splashed Southern coast, the World Cup has remained a celebration of sport, culture and, of course, Italian excellence.

There was peace, love and just a little bit of misunderstanding at sparkling Stade de la Mosson tonight, as Italy restored order to the chaotic Group B first-round standings with a 3-0 victory over Cameroon.

Italian Coach Cesare Maldini showed perhaps the best form of anyone with three personnel decisions that may have finally muted his cranky critics, including his country's bothersome prime minister. Maldini decided to leave forward Alessandro Del Piero — the best player in the world with more than one name — on the bench and started the reinvigorated Roberto Baggio and Christian Vieri on the front line again.

Baggio, in a quieter role than he had during the '94 World Cup, set up Luigi Di Biagio's early goal and Vieri scored twice in the final 15 minutes to relieve pressure and virtually clinch a spot for Italy in the Round of 16. The only realistic way the Italians (1-0-1) could get sent home early is if they lose to Austria (0-0-2) and Cameroon (0-1-1) upsets Chile (0-0-2) in the group finales next week. Now the challenge is to avoid finishing second — which would mean a second-round game against defending champion Brazil.

"Even if we suffered a little bit in the second half," Maldini said, "we played as a full team and all our forwards were excellent. We had a good day."

It was a perfect day in this city of about 250,000. With warm breezes and a cloudless sky, thousands flooded the Place de la Comedie, an enormous plaza in the city center that is anchored on one end by an old opera house and the other by a stylish mall. Outdoor cafes were packed and vendors hawked Del Piero T-shirts and noisemakers decorated with African art. Buildings lining the narrow side streets were linked by banners and flags, and the Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle was dotted with wine-tasting booths and arts and crafts displays.

Most important, there was none of the violence that led to dozens of injuries and arrests in Marseille before the England-Tunisia game on Monday. The most imposing figure today was an American ticket scalper.

Inside the tidy, 10-year-old stadium, Italy was supported by thousands of countrymen while the local fans pulled for the French-speaking Indomitable Lions. The Italians dominated the opening half, thanks in part to Baggio and Vieri up front and new starting midfielders Di Biagio and Francesco Moriero.

It had been a rough week for Maldini, who seemed to receive advice on his starting lineup from most of the country's 60 million residents. Prime Minister Romano Prodi insisted that Baggio and Del Piero should start, even though they are similar players most effective alongside the powerful Vieri. Maldini's response earlier this week was, "I understand that Prime Minister Prodi is a great admirer of cycling." He paused and added, "He should stick to that."

It took only seven minutes for Maldini's selections to pay off as Baggio assisted Di Biagio's first international goal with a wonderful cross from the left flank. Cameroon was awful in the first half and also lost defender Raymond Kalla Nkongo to a red card in the 43rd minute.

However, the Lions were much more dangerous playing a man short. Italy goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca needed a sensational leaping save on Joseph-Desire Job's blistering shot in the 60th minute to preserve the 1-0 lead.

After absorbing Cameroon's stirring attack, Italy put away the match. Vieri collected a pass from Moriero and slammed a 16-yarder past Jacques Songo'o in the 75th minute and barreled over a defender to beat Songo'o in the 89th.

Said Songo'o, who also made three excellent saves: "There's one match left and the Indomitable Lions have not had their final say."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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