There are, often, inevitabilties in life. Currently, the Golden State Warriors are leading the Cleveland Cavaliers 75-60 in the first game of the NBA Finals. They will win this match. There is a crushing, rolling, onward dawning sense of inevitability that they will smash the series and maybe even sweep it 4-0.
There is a point in one-day cricket matches, when batsmen are in their groove and the recent run-rate is nearing 10 an over, when it feels inevitable that the next ball – whatever trickery the bowler puts on it – will be slogged away for a boundary.
There is an inevitability, which is slowly being realised as intense pressing becomes more and more common, that football matches which start as physically or mentally intense tactical stalemates will become actually watchable in the last twenty minutes.
In the France Under 20s versus Italy Under 20s game, this moment actually came with a full half hour left to go, although, inevitably, this just left more room for the tired reluctance of two teams who’ve given it all but still have time on the clock left to fill.
It was mental exhaustion, primarily, although they will be physically drained from the previous stages of this Under 20 World Cup. Both sides set out in a 4-1-4-1 to congest the centre of the park and to prevent their opponents from passing through their midfield. There was an awful lot of midfield players standing in front of rabbit-eyed centre-backs in possession, having to know exactly what was behind them in order to block the potential passes. Knowing exactly what is behind you is hard, especially when the people behind you are elite athletes who are allowed, and even actively encouraged, to move around and try and fool you.
Despite this, there was a disappointingly low amount of ‘blind side’ movement from Italian and French midfielders during the game. The French had their wingers come far inside the pitch, creating an amorphous mass, a single blob in a lonely blue lava lamp. It was not, needless to say, effective in creating passing options for their centre-backs and central midfielder to slot through Italy’s six-man (midfield plus dropping striker) wall.
Italy, as the game wore on, improved in this respect of blindside movement behind the French midfield line, although in a similar way to how a wage of £3 an hour is better than £0 an hour – at least, sporadically, it is better than nothing. But it’s still next to nothing.
However, the mentally tiring endeavour of this type of defending was destined to lead to some kind of collapse later in the game. On top of this, physically-speaking, France were moderately pressing Italy’s centre-backs in a middlingly-high press and Italy were getting men back in double-quick time any time they looked threatened. Something had to give.
Unfortunately for the game, and for France, the game had reached its final scoreline by the time that happened. It was 2-1 after an hour and 2-1 it would remain. Italy had opened the scoring with a cross, a French left-back losing their man, and the man converting. France had equalised with a rare showing of quality interplay on the right, moving towards the centre, midfielder Amine Harit being tripped in the box by Italy centre-back Mauro Coppolaro, the French striker Jean-Kevin Augustin converting.
Italy then retook the lead in the second half, a long throw down the right flank, a cross, a French right-back losing their man, and the man converting. It was not a great game for French full-backs.
I will choose to believe, on the basis of this match alone, that my 60s will be the greatest years of my life. Minutes sixty to seventy were a sweetspot: Italy too tired to get men back to defend in transition, France’s high midfield line paper-rounded by concentration lapses which allowed Italy to get the ball in large spaces between the lines.
Before that came tedium interrupted briefly by fantastic moments. Italy’s other centre-back, Filippo Romagna, put in a beautiful pass, as caringly weighted into the midfield as it was insightfully guided, in the 40th minute.
In the 58th, Italy’s keeper Andrea Zaccagno twitched mid-dive to get as much as he could on a deflected shot. It’s a shame that the phrase ‘Hand of God’ is Maradonna’s to monopolise, because there are truly some saves that deserve it.
After the 70th minute or so, in the final twenty, the game turned increasingly to filler, tired legs and tired minds carrying tired beings to the end.
And speaking of ends, an NBA score update for you. With 5 minutes left to go, the Warriors are up 102-82. There is a sense of inevitability…
FT: France Under 20s 1 (Augustin (p) 36’) – Italy Under 20s 2 (Orsolini 27’; Panico 53’)
France Under 20s: Lafont; Michelin, Onguene, Diop, Maouassa; Toussart; Blas, Poha, Harit, Saint-Maximin; Augustin
Italy Under 20s: Zaccagno; Scalera, Romagna, Coppolaro, Pezzella; Mandragora; Orsolini, Vitale, Pessina, Panico; Favilli