Germany and Italy vie for place in final
BERLIN, July 4: If Germany are to realise their World Cup dream, they have to overcome their nightmare opponents Italy today in the semi-finals.
Few neutral observers saw the hosts as favourites to reach the final at the start of the tournament but the German team has been riding on a wave of patriotic World Cup fever and has begun to look as if they may just have a date with destiny.
But the omens do not look quite so good. In six competitive meetings with Italy, Germany have not won a single match and that includes four previous meetings at the World Cup finals.
Germany are also weakened, and angered, by the loss of hard-working midfielder Torsten Frings, suspended for throwing a punch in the fracas which took place after their penalty shootout victory over Argentina in the quarter-finals.
FIFA originally said no German player was implicated but images of Frings throwing the punch shown on Italian television and published in Italian papers forced the sport's governing body to investigate and Frings was banned on Monday.
The Germans have painful memories of past World Cup defeats by Italy, notably in the 1970 semi-finals in Mexico when they lost 4-3 in a dramatic extra time period in which five goals were scored.
They also lost the 1982 final in Spain 3-1 to the Italians, a match in which they were totally outplayed.
Germany's key men in Dortmund, where the national team has never lost to foreign opposition, are likely to be playmaker Michael Ballack and striker Miroslav Klose, top scorer at the finals with five goals.
''The Dortmund crowd is a phenomenon,'' said midfielder Tim Borowski, the player tipped to replace Frings in the team. ''The spectators will be the 12th man for us.'' Just as important may be their ability to win penalty shootouts.
Their victory over a more elegant and more gifted Argentina side was their fourth win in four World Cup penalty shootouts, a statistic which gives them a clear psychological edge.
Italy, by contrast, have lost all three World Cup shootouts they have taken part in and go on to the Westfalenstadion pitch knowing an away win is essential.
Italy are without their suspended midfielder Daniele de Rossi but should have central defender Marco Materazzi back from his one-match ban.
Their key men are likely to be striker Luca Toni, who netted twice against Ukraine in the quarter-finals and Francesco Totti, the most gifted Italian forward of his generation but who has yet to prove himself on the biggest stage of all.
Italy beat Germany 4-1 in a friendly in Florence on March 1 but the Italians are not taking that too seriously. ''It will be completely different,'' said defender Gianluca Zambrotta. ''This is the semi-final of the World Cup in Germany. They are doing very well, they have got to the semi-finals and I am sure they will want to go all the way.'' The winner will go on to play in the final in Berlin on Sunday against either Portugal or France, who meet in Munich on Wednesday.