Football: HEAVYWEIGHT CHUMPS OF THE WORLD; Italy, France, Argentina and Germany Are on the Ropes and Could All Be KO'd by Thursday
Byline: Martin ROGERS
PRESSURE: Veron faces the chopTHEY usually brush aside their lightweight challengers, but suddenly football's Big Four are on the ropes.
Like Mike Tyson they have been given a bloody nose, are not seeing clearly and look past their prime.
And in 90 minutes the referee may stop the fight and put them out of their suffering.
That is all the time France, Italy, Argentina and Germany have left to pick themselves up off the floor and show they are worthy of their reputations.
When one of the world's top strikers resorts to taking cheap shots at the referee it is a sure sign his team are in trouble.
Italy's Christian Vieri could have landed himself in hot water for claiming English official Graham Poll was of "village" standard as the Azzurri slumped to defeat against Croatia.
Yet whether FIFA's top brass plump for the "ton of bricks" or "slap on the wrist" option, Vieri's punishment will seem like heaven compared to the stick he will receive if Italy fail to reach the second round.
One of the pre-tournament favourites, Giovanni Trapattoni's men have now allowed themselves to be dragged into a brutal brawl just to get out of their group.
At least they are not alone. Of the teams tipped for big things in the Far East, only Brazil and Spain have had it mostly their own way.
Pre-World Cup fancies France and Argentina have joined the Italians in a nervous and embarrassing no-man's-land with just one game remaining in the first stage of the tournament.
Warm-up form has counted for nothing as football's top technicians have quickly discovered the World Cup bears closer resemblance to a no-holds-barred street scrap than to Queensberry rules pugilism.
And the pressure is starting to tell. The World Cup's opening week saw the heavyweights with the big reputations get their noses bloodied, and they do not like it one bit. Trapattoni blew his top yesterday when he was quizzed about his team selection for Italy's defeat by Croatia.
He fumed: "I'm not getting senile. You think I didn't consider all the options for the team to put out against Croatia? I have been a coach for 25 years.
"We should at least have drawn, but for certain decisions that everyone saw. Now the team and I are full of anger."
Argentina, still smarting from their 1-0 defeat thanks to David Beckham's penalty on Friday, seem to be in even worse shape. …