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Vieri Delivers the Golden Boot

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 28, 1998; Page D1

MARSEILLE, France, June 27 — For weeks, the great debate on the streets of Milan and in the cafes of Rome has been whether Roberto Baggio — star of the past — or Alessandro Del Piero — star of the present and future — should start at withdrawn forward for Italy's World Cup squad. But while Coach Cesare Maldini has tried to solve the puzzle involving his two highest profile players, there has been one consistent element to the Azzurri's pursuit of a fourth world title: Christian Vieri.

With a goal during a swift counterattack in the 18th minute today, Vieri lifted Italy past Norway, 1-0, in a round of 16 match before 60,000 at Stade Velodrome and moved himself into the tournament's scoring lead with five. It also propelled Italy into a quarterfinal Friday in Saint-Denis against the winner of Sunday's second-round match between France and Paraguay.

Vieri, a sturdy forward for Spanish club Atletico Madrid, gathered Luigi Di Biagio's splendid long ball between two defenders and cruised into the right side of the penalty area before beating goalkeeper Frode Grodas with a sharp shot into the far corner. He moved ahead of Argentina's Gabriel Batistuta in the chase for the individual scoring title, known as the Golden Boot Award.

Vieri, a soft-spoken 24-year-old and a prototype center forward, has risen on the world stage in a quiet manner, letting his goals attract the attention instead of off-field antics or outrageous comments.

"We just had very many good occasions to score," Vieri said. "It's very nice to score in the World Cup . . . but I'm just happy to win the game. Norway is a difficult opponent."

Difficult, perhaps. Dangerous? No. The Norwegians were perfectly happy putting 10 players in Italy's path and leaving lanky striker Tore Andre Flo on his own to solve Italy's injury-riddled defense. Flo, who scored in a 2-1 upset of Brazil four days ago, wasn't much of a factor because Italy bumped and tripped him into virtual insignificance. The Italian defense — which has lost starting backs Ciro Ferrara and Alessandro Nesta and goalie Angelo Perruzzi to injuries — got a perfectly timed boost from Giuseppe Bergomi, 34, who started in his country's last World Cup championship, in 1982.

Norway's best opportunity to force the first-ever World Cup sudden-death overtime came in the 70th minute, when Italy goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca made a phenomenal save with his right hand on Flo's six-yard header.

"We did not play up to our limits," said Coach Egil Olsen, who guided Norway past the first round for the first time in three World Cup appearances. "If we had done that, we would have beaten Italy. I wasn't particularly impressed with Italy either."

After a glowing start, Italy — particularly the struggling Del Piero — missed several scoring opportunities, then settled back into a Norway-like defensive shell — a famous maneuver known in Italian as "catenaccio" or chain — to prevent an equalizer. Nothing came close to the net after Flo's stinging bid.

Del Piero, 24, got the call alongside Vieri for the second consecutive match after the 30-year-old Baggio, a late addition to the World Cup roster after two years away from the national team, started the first two games and scored two goals while his young protege recovered from a leg injury.

Del Piero's inability to convert three golden chances today had Italy's supporters calling for Baggio. But Maldini never relented, in part because, as one theory goes, a Baggio appearance and goal could further sink Del Piero's confidence and essentially render him useless for the remainder of the tournament. At some point in this wide-open tournament, Maldini will need to rely on his young superstar, considered second best in the world behind Brazil's Ronaldo.

Baggio never appeared today, as Maldini replaced Del Piero with Enrico Chiesa in the 78th minute.

"We didn't take many risks and we had two or three very good opportunities to score," Maldini said. "The Norwegian team is very difficult to beat and I therefore believe that in beating them we achieved a very good result."

Two victories from reaching the title game for the second straight time, the Italians are beginning to think about a championship.

"We have to get that inside our minds," Di Biagio said. "We have demonstrated we're a very difficult team on defense and we are well prepared for every match. We know what it takes to win in the World Cup."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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