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Jun 30, 2006

Italy can't spoil the party

HAMBURG - Can a World Cup quarter-final ever be a sideshow in the city hosting it? Friday in Hamburg went some way to proving that it can indeed happen.

Hamburg's AOL Arena may have been hosting Italy's 3-0 despatching of Ukraine but the real place to be was the Reeperbahn, the port's infamous street of nightclubs, late-nite eateries and houses of ill repute. For what preceded Andriy Shevchenko's chance to remind his Serie A colleagues of what they will be missing next season was the small matter of Germany's match with Argentina in Berlin.

Jens Lehmann's save from Esteban Cambiasso set the whole street and surrounding area of St Pauli into raptures, the chants of the youthful fans who danced on the streets in celebration reflecting a genuine nationwide belief that Deutschland can win this trophy on home soil.

Extra-time and penalties meant that the home of SV Hamburg was not full until some minutes after the referee's first whistle as fans dressed in the regalia of the nationalmannschaft struggled to get there in time. Tardiness barely dimmed the high spirits as, despite a spirited effort from the Ukraine fans massed in a corner, German flags dominated early proceedings.

These fans, for whom the spiked mulleted wig in the colours of the German flag is a highly popular garment, perhaps were now only interested in their potential opponents in Dortmund on Tuesday.

In that way Ukraine were perhaps favoured in Hamburg's quarter-final as Italy have a more than decent World Cup record against this tournament's hosts. Not that an azzurri victory could dampen the high spirits as a chant exclaiming Germany's destiny in winning in the final in Berlin was on permanent rotation after the final whistle.

Ukraine's gameplan had been to keep out the Italy attack and then hope Shevchenko or even Maxim Kalinichenko could find the inspiration from somewhere to nick a goal. Oleg Blokhin's plan was soon in a figurative wastepaper basket.

Gianluca Zambrotta was the man to deny him. The full-back, with typical athleticism, cut in from the flank on 6 minutes to drill past Olexandr Shovkovskiy. Along with Germany's Phillip Lahm the Juventus man has been the outstanding player in his position this tournament and his goal added to that status.

And his celebration was significant too. He chose to celebrate with club colleagues Fabio Cannavaro and Alex Del Piero, the latter being on the substitute's bench. All three have been deeply affected by matters back home this week; the suicide attempt of Juventus sporting director Gianluca Pessotto, amid the club's ongoing criminal trial, looks to have brought them yet closer together.

Zambrotta and Del Piero hired a private jet in midweek to visit their former team-mate while Cannavaro had broken down when informed in a press conference of his friend's plight.

Coach Marcello Lippi, who took the player to the Stadio Delle Alpi in the mid 90s, also chose to pay tribute in his immediate post-match comments while a flag saying Pessottino siamo con te (Little Pessotto we are with you) was brandished in the post-match celebrations.

Perhaps the emotions carried captain Cannavaro through another superb performance. Blokhin was cursing him after half-time when an improved Ukraine came out of their shell to lay temporary siege to Gigi Buffon's goal. After a fine save from the keeper from a Gusev shot it was Cannavaro who blocked a goal-bound second attempt.

Zambrotta again reflected the ascendancy of the bianconeri players in Lippi's team when he provided the assist for Luca Toni's second goal.

Fiorentina's Toni, whose hard toil and undoubted class had yet to provide him with a goal until Hamburg, buried those critics who may have wondered about his selection ahead of Vincenzo Iaquinta or Pippo Inzaghi with, first, a header from a Franceso Totti cross, and second, the easy conversion of Zambrotta's pass after a typical lung-bursting run down the wing.

Significant too that Totti should play a part in one of those strikes; has Italy's playmaker woken from the torpor that has understandably affected him in recovering from the double break of ankle and leg in February? His performance reflected a greater sense of purpose and influence that may be required in the semi-final against the hosts.

Lippi can take great heart from the improving performances of his leading players. Cannavaro, still without Alessandro Nesta alongside him and having to play alongside his third partner this tournament in Palermo's Andrea Barzagli, dominated Ukraine's attack with a masterclass in tackling and interception that rendered Shevchenko a negligible side issue. Nesta will be with his partner of nearly a decade in Dortmund and that could spell trouble for Germany's highly popular striker pairing of Klose and Podolksi.

For the Ukraine and the visibly depressed Blokhin, their first World Cup is over, though they can take strength from recovering from that terrible opening thrashing from Spain, whom, of course, they eventually progressed a stage further than.

Their slow start in this match though was fatal, leaving us with a repeat of the semi-final of 1970, the final of 1982 and a chance for revenge for a 4-1 friendly thrashing of Germany earlier in 2006.

Despite a spell of Ukraine pressure in the early part of the second half, Italy's job was completed with some ease, giving them less of a footballing war to recover from than their German counterparts for whom signs of fatigue and injury were worryingly wracked over the face of Michael Ballack in Berlin.

Though that will not dim the spirits of the good burghers of Hamburg for whom the party down the Reeperbahn was sure to be continuing until well into the small hours. Pity a World Cup Quarter-Final prevented some of us from taking a fuller part in the festivities.


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