The World Cup Calendar, July 4th. Priceless Pirlo Proves Pitvotal

Today’s game was part of the reason that I decided to write this series. This match, Germany v Italy, the 2006 World Cup semi-final, may just be my favourite ever World Cup game. One of the world’s most iconic stadiums, some outstanding players and, above all else, some incredible drama. Late drama. The latest drama. World record breaking drama, even. The most gruelling heavyweight battle since George Foreman fought Muhammad Ali in The Rumble in the Jungle. Germany had outdone themselves, beating the pre-tournament odds by playing electrifying football. Italy had a different style, they had systematically dismantled team after team, finding their weakness and exploiting it. This game may not have been a goal fest, but that didn’t stop it being an end-to-end thriller. Due to this being my favourite ever World Cup game, please enjoy an extra long account of an extra special game.

Francesco Totti had the first chance of the game. He struck a free kick from 30 yards out. It beat the wall and was on target, but Jens Lehmann held on to the shot comfortably. Italy had another chance soon after. Fabio Grosso picked up the ball on the left flank, dribbling over the halfway line, eventually floating a pass over the defence to Simone Perrotta. Perrotta’s touch was heavy and saw the ball roll into the body of Lehmann. Perrotta fought for the ball, watching it bounce into the air, but Lehmann collected it before the danger could grow.

Germany were getting forward, but it was the Italians who were creating the most clear-cut chances of the evening. Andrea Pirlo whipped in a free kick from the wide right. Luca Toni and Christoph Metzelder both contested the ball, with both missing it completely. The ball continued its path through to Marco Materazzi. Materazzi got his head on the ball, but could only head it onto the floor, watching it bounce up and over the bar.

Italy had another chance soon after. Fabio Grosso burst from his position, putting the ball between the legs of Philipp Lahm and carrying on and into the box. He fizzed his cross low into the feet of Luca Toni, the big Fiorentina forward hitting the ball first time. Luckily for Germany, Metzelder timed his tackle to perfection, blocking Toni’s shot and sending the ball out for a corner.

Germany’s first real chance of the half came off the back of an Andrea Pirlo mistake (honestly, this is not a typo!)This miss-pass allowed Miroslav Klose to take up possession of the ball. Klose laid the ball up to Lukas Podolski, who passed back to Klose. Klose drove at the Italian defence, drawing Materazzi in, then passing outside him to Bernd Schneider. Schneider fired just over the bar. Gianluigi Buffon may not have been tested, but it was a stark reminder to Marcello Lippi’s side that their opposition mustn’t be underestimated.

Germany started the second half with more vigour than their first half. Sebastian Kehl capitalised on a string of lax Italian defensive clearances early into the half. A little later on and Klose had embarked on a long, leisurely run into the Italian penalty area. The Italian centre halves must have been anticipating the pass the entire way, with Tim Borowski and Bernd Schneider both free on either flank. Klose ignored both options, instead darting into the penalty box. He was brought down by a combination of Buffon and Gennaro Gattuso. There were claims for a penalty, these claims fell on deaf ears.

Andrea Pirlo created the next glaring chance of the game. Unshaken by his prior poor pass, he threaded a glorious ball between the defence to the overlapping Fabio Grosso. Grosso benefited with Michael Ballack stumbling upon chasing the Italian left back, and Grosso continued his run. He was reminiscent of a dear in the headlines, unfortunately, and couldn’t muster a shot. The Palermo defender could only watch as Lehmann rushed from his line to claim the ball for his own.

Germany kept on piling men forward, much to the appreciation of the thousands of fans packed inside the Dortmund stadium. Tim Borowski fired over the bar with a speculative shot from distance. It was bold, considering that Buffon hadn’t conceded a goal from an opposition player from open play all tournament.

Soon after the Borowski effort it was Podolski who tried his luck, from significantly closer than Borowski’s attempt. Bernd Schneider lifted his pass into the box, into the path of Podolski. Podolski turned the ageing Materazzi, pirouetting into space and unleashing a stinging shot at Buffon. The FC Koln forward could only watch in frustration as his effort stung the gloves of Gianluigi Buffon. The goalkeeper pushed the ball back into the box, with Arne Friedrich reaching the pass first. His shot was lazy and soared over the bar.

Pirlo and Ballack both had shots go close from outside of the box, but the last real chance of regulation time befell Simone Perrotta. Pirlo hit a high ball up to Alberto Gilardino. Gilardino headed the ball back to Francesco Totti, who chipped the ball over the defence and into the path of Perrotta. Lehmann bravely threw himself in front of the ball, punching it to safety and clotheslining the Italian in the process.

The referee blew for full time with the score sitting at 0-0, despite the best efforts of both sides. Extra time was to be played out. With both teams having played five games already in Germany, and with the winning participating in the final just five days later, the prospect of an extra half hour was a daunting prospect…

Italy created the first proper chance of extra time. Gilardino burned Metzelder for pace, rushing down to the goal line, before cutting inside the box with his sights set on scoring. The playboy-esque Milan forward made Michael Ballack’s defending look schoolboy-like, easing past him before taking the shot on. Gilardino’s shot beat Lehmann, but bounced off the post and away into no-man’s-land.

Italy kept the pressure on, this time with Gianluca Zambrotta coming close to grabbing his second goal in as many games. Germany couldn’t clear their lines properly from a corner, with Zambrotta pouncing on the loose ball. The ball swung and swerved in the air, sailing past Lehmann but only striking the crossbar.

Into the second period of extra time and again it was Italy who were creating the chances, their first coming almost straight from kick off, Pirlo again the creator. He dinked the ball towards the penalty area from distance, his pass being deflected by his own countryman deeper into the box. The deflection caught the defence out, and Alessandro Del Piero latched on to the pass. The ball wouldn’t land in the right spot for Del Piero to get his shot away, and soon Arne Friedrich had his body between the ball and the goal. Friedrich harried Del Piero away long enough to allow Lehmann to rush out and push the ball off the Juventus legends boots.

Germany responded by creating their own opportunity. Sebastian Kehl picked up the ball in acres of space, spraying a Pirlo-esque pass to Podolski on the edge of box. Podolski rattled his shot away, forcing Buffon to make a diving save, tipping the ball over the bar.

With just minutes to go, Andrea hit a rasping shot on target, which was saved by Jens Lehmann. Arsenal’s shot-stopper pushed the ball wide from a corner, and this proved to be the beginning of the end of Jurgen Klinsmann’s young side.

Alessandro Del Piero stood over the corner, whipping the ball into the packed penalty box. The ball was headed away with relative ease, but once again, the Italians reached the ball first. Pirlo picked the ball up, took a touch and calmly found his pass. He confidently passed the ball to Fabio Grosso, who pivoted and fired his shot first time into the back of the net. After 119 minutes of thrilling end to end football, Italy had broken the deadlock. It was the latest goal to ever be scored in a World Cup match. Not just had Grosso put his side into the final, but he had created a little bit of history in the process.

Germany were committing more and more men forward, desperately searching for an equaliser. Lukas Podolski took a heavy touch and Alessandro Del Piero capitalised, using his chest to dispossess the Polish-born German and start a devastating counter attack. Del Piero offloaded the ball to a teammate and continued his run up field. Alberto Gilardino received the pass, running at the defence and creating a gap for his teammate to fill. He dragged Christoph Metzelder into the centre, then reversed his pass left for Del Piero. Del Piero sprinted to the ball and turned his body, easing the ball beyond Lehmann and doubling Italy’s lead. Fabio Grosso had held the record for the latest ever World Cup goal for all of two minutes. On 121 minutes, Alessandro Del Piero had smashed that record!

Full time came and the hosts were eliminated. It’s never nice to lose a Semi Final, but to lose with practically the last kick of the game must have been devastating. To the neutral fans who watched this game, I believe the game will be remembered as something of a modern day classic. One of the best things about it was that the referee, Mexico’s Benito Archundia, was as much of a spectator as anybody else. By this, I mean that he wasn’t wrapped up in controversy, there were no dodgy penalty shouts, nor were there any fights. This game was a pure football spectacle. It was end to end. It was heart and soul. It was passion. It was a masterclass. Both sides had a claim to deserving the win, and to me, this is the way football should be. When you think World Cup classic, this game may not spring to the minds of many, but to me, this was my favourite World Cup game of all time. It has been an absolute honour getting to recount it for you, valued reader.

Tomorrow’s game: July 5th. Netherlands v Costa Rica. 2014.

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