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By ESPN Staff

Italy heads to Cup final after stunning Germany

DORTMUND, Germany (AP) -- For nearly two hours, Germany probed, Italy held firm and penalty kicks seemed inevitable.

Then, with two stunningly swift strikes in the last two minutes, Italy unraveled it all -- the tension, the match, the Germans' dream of lifting the World Cup trophy in Berlin.

First came the left-footed shot that Fabio Grosso twisted into the far side of the net in the 119th minute. Then Alessandro Del Piero clinched the 2-0 win a minute later with a counterattacking goal as the Germans pressed frantically to equalize.

"Italy deserved to win," Italy coach Marcello Lippi said. "We controlled the play more than Germany did and, in the end, we got these two great goals, which allowed us to avoid the roulette of a penalty shootout."

A good idea, considering Germany historically is masterful at shootouts and the Italians abysmal.

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Tuesday's win came as scandal tears apart the national sport back home. But an investigation into match-fixing has not proven a distraction -- the Italians keep plowing through soccer's premier event, allowing only a single own-goal in six games.

Now the Italians head to Berlin for Sunday's final in search of their fourth title. They'll play the winner of Wednesday's Portugal-France match.

"We have a great group," Grosso said. "We've beaten some very good teams."

Not least Germany, a squad that was supposed to be too young and inexperienced to challenge for this trophy, yet performed superbly.

In handing the Germans their first loss in 15 games at Dortmund, the Azzurri also remained undefeated in five World Cup meetings with Germany -- this was their third win to go with two draws. Italy is unbeaten in 24 games since October 2004.

The swift end to this one was stunning. Germany had pressured for the game's last hour and slowly stretched the tight Italian defense.

As Italy tired, Germany captain Michael Ballack directed the attack. The Germans found room where before there was none, creating space -- and chances.

In the 63rd minute, Lukas Podolski received the ball with his back to the goal, then turned and fired. Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon parried ball and Arne Friedrich rocketed a rebound shot over the bar.

But by the beginning of extra time, it was Italy threatening, once hitting the post, once the crossbar.

Then, out of nowhere, came the deciding goal.

Italy's reserves rushed onto the field after Grosso took a brilliant tap pass from Andrea Pirlo in the box and curled his shot beyond the leaping reach of goalkeeper Jens Lehmann and just inside the post.

With the hosts pushing forward in desperation, the Italians struck again on a two-on-one break. Del Piero finished with a right-footed blast into the top of the net just before the whistle sounded.

"A game of this type in their home? We really reached a new level tonight," Del Piero said.

It's a level that could win the Italians their first World Cup since 1982. They mobbed each other and rolled around on the field as their fans in a sliver of the stadium jumped in delight, waving the green, white and red flags in ecstasy.

What the Italians have faced off the field could easily have sapped them of their resolve. Their domestic league match-fixing scandal reached new heights Tuesday when a prosecutor urged the demotion of four Serie A teams for which many of Italy's players star. Every Italian team member plays club ball at home -- and 13 of the 23 play for the topflight teams under investigation.

While the Italians celebrated, the Germans collapsed in dismay.

"It's bitter to lose like that," Germany defender Philipp Lahm said. "We had set ourselves the target of reaching the semifinals, but once you've reached that, you want to go all the way."

The home crowd lingered to cheer their heroes, singing and chanting their names and "Deutschland, Deutschland" after the match. Ballack and several others cried as they left the field after circling it to recognize their flag-waving fans. They were defeated but unashamed.

"I already told my team in the dressing room that the team has every reason to be proud of themselves," said Germany coach Juergen Klinsmann, who won the 1990 World Cup played in Italy. "They really achieved amazing things at this World Cup."

They just couldn't finish the heady Italians, whose technical mastery, particularly on defense, was surpassing.

The Azzurri heads to its first World Cup title game since losing to Brazil in 1994.

"These guys battled from the start and continued throughout," Lippi said, referring as much to the scandal as the win. "It's a great satisfaction. We look forward to next Sunday, whoever we play."

Germany will play in the third-place game Saturday in Stuttgart, hardly where it planned to be.

"The boys are sitting there and have a bitter pill to swallow," Klinsmann said. "It hurts terribly."