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A fitting final: host vs. defending champ

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It's the final Michel Platini and the World Cup organizers have been yearning for.

Host France has made it to the World Cup final for the first time, and waiting there is defending champion Brazil.The Brazilians, the most exciting team in the world, play as if they have a divine right to a fifth title.

The French dream of winning it for the first time in front of their own fans - no host has made it this far since 1978.

One is sure to get their way.

On Sunday, before 80,000 spectators at the gleaming Stade de France, Ronaldo, Bebeto, Rivaldo, Denilson and Roberto Carlos will attack possibly the strongest defense in the 32-team field.

Except that the French back four will be a little weaker because Laurent Blanc is missing. The stylish and dependable defender is out of Sunday's final because he was ejected from Wednesday's 2-1 semifinal victory over Croatia for pushing Slaven Bilic in the face.

It's a big loss for the French. The Blanc-Marcel Desailly partnership has protected goalkeeper Fabien Barthez so well that he has yielded only two goals in six games.

Frank Leboeuf likely will replace Blanc on the French defense and face up to the formidable Brazilians, who still haven't really caught fire in the championship.

Although Ronaldo, Bebeto, Rivaldo and Cesar Sampaio have scored 13 goals among them, they have not been as bewildering as everyone expected.

Roberto Carlos has struggled to find the target with his trademark long-range free kicks and Denilson, the substitute who tries to dance around defenders with his fancy footwork, has left his teammates frustrated by holding onto the ball too long.

But this is the time for the Brazilians to show why they are the world's best. Mario Zagallo's men are odds-on to win a fifth title. But there have even been rumblings that they're not playing the traditional way.

The critics say Brazil is sacrificing its flamboyant, fan-pleasing style of slick passing, long-range swerving shots and mesmerizing dribbles for a more practical European style of closing down the opposition and relying on breaks from deep positions.

Cafu will return to the right side of the Brazilian defense in place of the inexperienced Ze Carlos to add speed and guile to the attack and stability to a back four that has looked shaky at times.

Dunga and Cesar Sampaio have been solid in midfield and will allow the creative players to wreak havoc in the French penalty area.

They also will do battle with the gifted French midfielders: hard-working and efficient Didier Deschamps, smooth running and ever-accurate Emmanuel Petit; and one of the best playmakers in soccer, Zinedine Zidane.

Zidane holds the key to unlocking the Brazilians. He will run at the heart of the defense and open up spaces for his teammates to shoot at Claudio Taffarel, who was the hero of the shootout victory over the Netherlands.