WORLD CUP ALMANAC: Semi-Final - Tale of the Tape
Two European heavyweights, neither flashy fighters, both with iron chins and a career full of K.O.s.
Let's get ready to rumble.
Not that any World Cup semi-finalist needs to worry about motivation or justifiable cause, but both Germany and Italy have excellent back-stories. Germany, the hosts and on the crest of a wave of patriotic fervour, attempting to reposition themselves at their rightful place as one of world football's powerhouses. Italy, racked by scandal, their beloved calcio the subject of an ongoing catharsis which may well see some of the biggest names of Italian club football relegated. Add to that the tragic circumstances of Gianluca Pessoto's attempted suicide and you have a purpose greater than mere football.
So if both are driven on equally by a sense of purpose, let's look at who measures up on the park.
All square here. Jens Lehmann and Gianluigi Buffon are among the very best practitioners of the lunatic art working today. A couple of seasons ago, however, it would have been laughable to mention the Arsenal number one in the same breadth as the magnificient Buffon.
Athletic and agile, yet tall and domineering, Buffon has long been the rightful heir to the great Italian goalkeeping tradition.
Ironically, it is only Oliver Kahn in recent times who has compared to Buffon, but Lehmann's stellar form since moving to Arsenal - and the elimination of the odd howler he was once susceptible to - has seen him overtake the declining Olli as Buffon's only rival. Lehmann has a crucial edge on penalty shoot-outs however after his success against Argentina, while Buffon has admitted dreading shoot-outs since Juventus' loss to Milan in the 2003 Champions League Final.
It is said that the security staff at Fort Knox often watch the Azzuri in wonderment, shaking their heads in disbelief at how safe the fabled thin blue line is. Iron-clad defence is as much a part of Italian culture as corruption or ice-cream, so despite the proud German tradition of doughty back-lines (step forward Herrn Beckenbauer, Kohler, Berthold et al) Italy has the clear advantage here.
In Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluca Zambrotta Italy have contenders for best central defender and full-back respectively, and while the return from injury of Alessandro Nesta would only add to the solidity, Marco Materazzi has proved a worthy replacement. Germany deserve credit for recovering from the concession of two soft goals to the mighty Costa Rica to subsequently only concede one, Roberto Ayala's header in the quarter-final, and in left-back Phillippe Lahm they have one of the stars of the tournament. However, the current curators of catenaccio are as redoubtable as any of their forebears.
In Michael Ballack, the hosts possess the one truly world-class operator among the two sides. Ballack has been an inspiration in helping transform the seemingly unlikely pre-tournament hopes of the home nation into the reality of a place at the brink of the World Cup final. Ballack was especially key in dragging his team back into the game in the latter stages against Argentina and it was his ball into the box which ultimately ended up on Miroslav Klose's head for the equaliser.
However, he will not be accompanied by the trusty Torsten Frings, suspended for his part in the post-shoot-out melee with Argentina, whose harassment of Juan Roman Riquelme throughout the quarter-final stopped the South Americans ever getting their rhythm established. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Bernd Schneider provide able but hardly flashy accompaniment from wide.
Italy's midfield revolves around the grunt of Gennaro Gattuso, who will undoubtedly be detailed to snap at Ballack's heels. It remains to be seen if Francesco Totti is deployed deeper behind a two-man front line, or whether he is played off Luca Toni up front. Otherwise, with the likes of Perrotta and Camoranesi, there is precious little other than huff and puff in the Italian midfield.
Ballack, if he can escape Gattuso for long enough, should lord this area.
Similarities here, in that both sides have hardy, experienced pros with excellent domestic goalscoring records leading the line, rather than bona fide stars. Both Klose and Luca Toni are physically strong and natural finishers, and there is little to choose between the two, given that Toni appears to have come into form at the right time.
Klose is backed up by Lukas Podolski, the great white hope of German football. Pacy and confident, one however suspects he is yet to meet as uncompromising a foe as Fabio Cannovaro.
Toni will either be supported by Alberto Gilardino, the Milan striker who is yet to fulfill the promise exhibited in his days at Parma, or an advanced Francesco Totti. The latter will probably get the nod, and given the way that Totti and Toni combined in the quarter-final to finally put away Ukraine, it is tempting to see in these two the potential to launch Italy toward the quarter final.
50,000 screaming Germans notwithstanding, the Italian defence's solidity has seduced me, much like their dusky good looks have seduced our impressionable maidenfolk. If they snatch one, which, with Toni and Totti (sounds like a firm of hairdressers) is very likely, they will not be as dithery as Argentina in protecting it.
Andiamo a Berlin.