The world saw on Tuesday night what footballing pedigree is all about. Germany and Italy, three-time champions both, clashed in the penultimate round of the 2006 World Cup and produced a match worthy of a final. The better team won, courtesy two high-quality goals at the fag end of extra-time. But if I were to pick a winner from the duel in Dortmund, it had to be the game of football.
The most striking ' and amazing ' thing about this match was the speed at which the two sides operated for most of the 120 minutes. They attacked, defended, counter-attacked each other at breathtaking pace. There must have been 25 sorties by each side. Not all of them resulted in clear openings at goal, in fact more half-chances were created and missed than real sitters, but it was an engrossing encounter all the same.
Italy were more compact in defence, sharper and better organised in attack. Cannavaro was the central figure in an absolutely air-tight defence. In Nestaís absence, the Juventus stopper took it upon himself to block every serious German threat.
Just once in the two-hour battle was Cannavaro not in position, giving Podolski a free header. Luckily for Italy, the young German guided the ball wide with just Buffon in front of him.
If Cannavaro stood like the Rock of Gibraltar, it was Pirlo who drove the Italian engine. I canít remember seeing a midfielder working so hard in a match of this level. He foiled German forays, initiated Italian attacks, ran into free areas and wanted the ball to be passed to him. In short, he never stopped running.
The way Pirlo bluffed the German defence and pushed a soft but measured pass to set up the first goal for Grosso after 119 minutes, spoke of the manís football intelligence. And the way the Palermo side-back met the ball in motion and bent the left-footer into the far corner ' we call it the rainbow shot ' past an airborne Lehmann, it was finishing of the highest class.
Lehmann had another brilliant game, but canít be faulted for any of the goals. The second one came off a typically fast counter-attack, when the desperate Germans went up en masse to manufacture a stoppage-time equaliser. This time, the classy final pass came from Gilardino. He delayed releasing the ball to draw two defenders to him before pushing it square for Del Piero to run in and curl a right-footer into the far corner ' this time to Lehmannís left.
Italy, who were well served by Zambrotta, Totti and Gattuso as well, should have scored early in extra-time. First Gilardino fooled a tired Ballack and shot to the base of the left post. A minute later, Zambrottaís power-packed right-footer thudded into the crosspiece.
It was good to see Italy play positively and look for goals, rather than stick to their traditional defence-oriented and counter-attacking style. The 4-1 thrashing of Germany in a friendly four months ago seemed to have given Lippiís men oodles of confidence.
The Germans, on the other hand, were wary of the famed Italian counter-attack and didnít dare push enough men up field to aid Klose and Podolski. Even Ballack was defending more than he normally does.
Klose was totally bottled up by Cannavaro and Materazzi, but Podolski did get two clear looks at goal which he should have taken. The misdirected header apart, he fired a left-footer straight at Buffon.
The German dream may be over, but they can be proud of their performance. Klinsmannís team surprised quite a few experts during the course of this championship and even on Tuesday night, fought like only the Germans can: till the bitter end.
It was just that they came up against an inspired team which raised its level to championship class for the first time in the tournament. Thank you, Germany, and good luck Italy.