Italy 3-0 Ukraine
In the midst of three closely match quarter-finals, this one always seemed likely to be the one that was slightly more lop-sided than the rest. Ukraine, with the best will in the world, had looked rather like Shevchenko plus ten, and that’s not enough to beat a team like Italy.
From the kick-off, the Ukrainians came out fighting (a welcome relief after their anodyne performance against Switzerland – they were spared widespread criticism only because the Swiss were even worse), but it all started going wrong for them on six minutes, when Shovkovskiy appeared to mis-judge Zambrotta’s shot for the opening goal. First viewing seemed to indicate that he’d got a hand on the shot but not enough of one to turn the ball around the post. The replay showed that the ball appeared to have gone through his arms. For the remainder of the first half, the Ukrainians slipped into a torpor, and were seeming to playing a damage-limitation exercise. It was a shame to see Shevchenko cutting such an isolated figure up front, his team-mates seemingly unable or unwilling to supply the balls that he needed to make his fullest contribution. At half-time in the BBC studio, Martin O’Neill raged at them, calling on Oleg Blokhin to make tactical changes and for his team to have a bit more of a go at them in the second half. O’Neill’s rages are a joy to behold – he starts at full pelt, and vents his ire, whilst sitting further and further forward in his chair until he runs out of words and collapses back into his seat like a deflated balloon.
He got his wish. Ukraine came out for the second half in a considerably more positive state of mind and rattled the Italians, who appeared to have been more than happy to play the ball and do little more for the duration of the first half. They’d barely moved out of first gear, and were clearly caught off-guard by Ukraine’s more atacking formation. They called on Buffon to make two excellent second saves early in the second half, before Luca Toni finally got the goal that his endeavours over the last couple of weeks had deserved.
The game was clearly up for Ukraine with the second goal, though had Kalinichenko scored rather than hitting the bar shortly afterwards, the story might have been somewhat different. With Shevchenko looking more and more isolated up front and Ukraine now having to push more players forward, Italy started to exploit the inevitable gaps at the back, and it was little surprise when Toni added a third from close range. I’m delighted for Toni, and not merely because I picked him out as top scorer before the tournament started. Against Australia, he did more or less everything but score. Anyone that manages 31 goals in Serie A can’t, by any stretch of the imagination, be a bad striker, but the pressure on him had clearly been building up for a couple of games.
Toni’s goals have set up in an interesting semi-final with Germany. Will their defence be able to cope with him? The comparisons with Paolo Rossi are now inevitable, particularly against the murky backdrop of the news from home. Can the Germans, with the attacking flair of Podolski and Klose and seemingly indefatigable Michael Ballack, get through this seemingly impenetrable Italian defence? When they last met in a World Cup semi-final in 1970, Italy won 4-3 in extra-time in a match of breathtaking excitement. The match on Tuesday night promises to be an epic. The World Cup deserves no less.