Two things stood out from Germany's impressive victory over Colombia here on Friday night. The first was that Jürgen Klinsmann's rapidly improving team are a decent bet to reach the last four (and should not be dismissed as potential winners); the second was that, if they are forced to be without Michael Ballack, they will be a side bereft of inspiration and guile.
The newly recruited Chelsea midfielder not only headed the opening goal in a 3-0 triumph that might have finished with the hosts doubling their score, but he also organised, defended, cajoled, passed and orchestrated in a performance that supplied a well-deserved dose of confidence to a promising, youthful, team, who open the tournament on Friday night in Munich against Costa Rica.
Ballack, of course, missed the 2002 final in Yokohama, after scoring a decisive semi-final goal against South Korea and then being cautioned for a selfless foul that ensured both his team's place in the showpiece and his personal absence. This time he deserves better, because if his team-mates rise to the occasion this world-class footballer has all the skills to grace the greatest stage of all.
At 29, Ballack is at his peak, a player of hauteur, grace and improvisation, but also a destructive shield who breaks up anything dangerous constructed by the opposition. He is, in short, a creator, warrior and goalscorer, as Fifa's preview publication describes him, and his influence on Friday was stark. He is the heart and soul of this team; and spokesman and critic.
As Klinsmann's captain, he has already shown the kind of healthy independence that his coach always demonstrated in questioning the shape and tactics of a team, and squad, that until very recently looked doomed to be among the chorus line in a lavish World Cup production. Just as the former Tottenham Hotspur striker has insisted on living in Huntington Beach, California, so Ballack has exercised his right to give opinions on the team they are moulding in pursuit of a fourth World Cup. Following recent poor defensive displays, he challenged the team to keep a clean sheet.
"Criticism, what criticism?" said Klinsmann. "It is always a good thing when any player can express his opinion. I don't think he criticised the defence. For me, our problem was not the defence per se, but the transition back to defence from up front, and from midfield. We wanted to play more compactly in midfield - and we did that tonight. It was a very good result, just the positive performance we needed." The clean sheet was greeted with as much enthusiasm as the attacks that flattened the Colombians.
"Berlin, Berlin, wir fahren nach Berlin" ("We're going to Berlin," sung to the tune of "We're going to Wemberlee!") echoed around the stadium as the 45,000-capacity crowd caught World Cup fever. Klinsmann, shirt-sleeved, casual and relaxed, stretched and smiled on his seat. His easy self-confidence and cool demeanour have clearly infected his squad and there is a modern and contemporary style to the obvious team spirit he has built.
This is embodied by Ballack, of course, who is an untypical German in many ways, but also by several of his team-mates. Philipp Lahm, 22, of Bayern Mun-ich, who returned after injury with his elbow in a cast, striker Lukas Podolski, who was 21 yesterday, of Cologne and midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, also 21, represent a new generation.
Of these, Lahm delivered the most significant performance. Klinsmann finally seems to have settled on a back four of Arne Friedrich, Christoph Metzelder, Per Mertesacker and Lahm in a 4-4-2 formation that uses Torsten Frings at the base of a midfield diamond with Bernd Schneider on the right and Schweinsteiger on the left, and Ballack at the attacking tip. Podloski was partnered here by Miroslav Klose.
"It went very well and it was an important part of the match for us that Lahm performed," said Klinsmann. "Now he's fully able to go after the ball without fear. That gives us confidence."
The German goals were interesting, too, as they all followed dead-ball kicks by the Beckhamesque Schweinsteiger. His first delivery was a flighted indirect free-kick from which Ballack outjumped two static defenders to head powerfully into the net; his second a swerving 25-yard direct free-kick; and his third a corner that ended up being thumped home by the substitute midfielder Tim Borowski.
Beaten 4-1 in Italy in March and embarrassed in a 2-2 draw with Japan in Leverkusen last Tuesday, Germany proved they could defend, too, when required. The omens, for them, are good. In 15 appearances in the finals, they have made the semi-finals 10 times, reached the final seven times and lifted the trophy three times. What price a fourth?