Germany and Italy serve up another classic
BERLIN, July 5 (Reuters) It was always unlikely that Germany and Italy would reproduce their seven-goal 1970 spectacular but yesterday's semi-final has already earned its own place in the World Cup's gallery of masterpieces.
In Mexico 36 years ago Italy emerged 4-3 winners for the dubious honour of becoming Brazil's sacrificial lambs in the final but this year the prize at stake was a place in a very winnable decider against France or Portugal.
It also offered the chance to secure a fourth victory since both sides had lifted the trophy three times previously.
The size of the reward could have strangled the match with tension but instead it was the best of the tournament so far and another reminder that a shower of goals are not always necessary for a classic as Italy won with two late strikes in extra time.
The game was memorable for all the right reasons.
It ws played at a relentless pace, with supreme technical mastery, expertly and sympathetically refereed, featuring risky but positive substitutions by both coaches and settled in dramatic fashion with two beautiful goals late in extra time.
''It was the best match that I've seen in a long time,'' said former Germany great Franz Beckenbauer, echoing the thoughts of locals and neutrals from around the world.
TOURNAMENT GREATS The atmosphere in the Westfalenstadion was electric before kickoff as the 65,000 crowd prepared to witness a titanic battle between two tournament greats who both fully believed they were the better side with neither willing to give any ground.
They were not disappointed as the match started at breakneck speed and barely paused for breath over the next two hours.
In contrast with much of the cagey, slow-burn football that had been on display throughout the last four weeks, yesterday's match was a fantastic advertisement for attacking football.
As soon as each side won the ball they set about trying to find a way forward. But this was no kick and rush, no hurried, hopeful long balls to the front men -- it was considered, sharp passing, agile movement, thrust and counter-thrust.
However, the constant attacking did not lead to many chances.
Both defences were at the very top of their game, aided by the increasingly common system of having a holding midfielder screening them and breaking up attacks before the danger zone.
In Germany's case that man was Sebastian Kehl, who ensured the suspended Torsten Frings was not missed.
For Italy the role was filled by was Gennaro Gattuso, who flew into every tackle with total commitment despite knowing that one mistimed challenge could mean the yellow card that would have ruled him out of the final.
As the game progressed, the tension mounted and both sides had half-chances that could have settled it.
MORE CONFIDENT Germany, relentlessly impressive knockout operators, appearing in an extraordinary 12th World Cup semi-final or equivalent, had looked the more confident side for an hour.
But Italy, who had never lost to Germany in their six previous competitive meetings, gradually got on top and the game tilted dramatically in their direction in extra time.
Twice in the first minute of the extra period they hit the woodwork but it seemed as if a great game was going to end with a frustrating penalty shootout finale.
Fabio Grosso's stunning strike and Alessandro Del Piero's sublime second soon after ensured the finish it deserved.
REUTERS PKS RK2006