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Saturday, 8 June, 2002, 15:09 GMT 16:09 UK
Vieri leads the way
Christian Vieri celebrates scoring against Croatia
Vieri celebrates yet another World Cup goal

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For all the talk of Totti, it is Christian Vieri who is fast turning into the star of Italy's stop-start World Cup campaign.

Francesco Totti was expected to be the key figure in coach Giovanni Trapattoni's team.

Italian football places almost God-like status on the "fantasista" - the man entrusted with providing the creativity to spark an otherwise functional team.

Totti was also given the prestigious number 10 shirt.

Vieri graphic goals
However, two matches into the World Cup, all eyes are on the man with number 21 on his back - Vieri.

And after the defeat to Croatia, Trapattoni's greatest fear must be who will score the goals if Vieri starts firing blanks.

Equally, there is always the threat of injury.

The 28-year-old has struggled with hamstring and ankle injuries over the past year, as well as a serious knee ligament problem.

Doctors have described him as having "muscles of silk".

And his determination to shine in the Far East would have been reinforced by his absence from Euro 2000 after an eve of tournament injury.

After he opened his 2002 World Cup account against Ecuador, he dedicated his two goals to the doctors who have helped him recover.

World Cup record
8 goals in 7 matches
1998
One v Chile (2-2)
Two v Cameroon (3-0)
One v Austria (2-1)
One v Norway (1-0)
None v France (0-0)
2002
Two v Ecuador (2-0)
One v Croatia (1-2)
But Vieri's scoring form should come as no surprise - the Australian-born striker has pedigree.

In France 98 he scored five goals in five games. With three goals to date four years on, he is averaging more than a goal a game on the greatest stage.

One more goal would see him draw level with such luminaries as Paolo Rossi and Roberto Baggio at the top of the list of Italy's leading World Cup goalscorers.

The three goals he has scored in the Far East also show the burly striker's all-round attributes.

He is described as an "ariete" or a battering ram, imposing his physique on opposing defenders. He has also earned the nickname "Bobo" - stupid.

However, such a description belittles his all-round contribution.

At Inter Milan he has become more of a provider in the potentially potent partnership with Brazil's Ronaldo.

But when the roles are reversed, as in his national combination with Totti, he is a predator around the penalty box.

Christian Vieri and Francesco Totti train under the gaze of Giovanni Trapattoni
Vieri and Totti are instrumental for Italy
Vieri is capable of unleashing vicious shots from all angles off either foot - both left and right feet were in evidence in the goals against Ecuador - and is equally strong with his head - as his goal against Croatia showed.

More than anything, Vieri has the priceless commodity of any good striker of being in the right place at the right time.

However, everything does come at a price. Inter parted with 31m in 1999 when they lured the footballing nomad from Lazio for a then world record.

The move and the money involved was described as "an offence to the poor" by the Vatican.

It was his ninth club in seven years and came after successive summer moves from Juventus to Atletico Madrid and then Lazio that amounted to 30m in total.

All of Italy and beyond can now see what the fuss was about.

The "fantista" may be the fulcrum of the side, but Vieri is the embodiment of force and function spearheading Italy's challenge.


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