The suspension of Torsten Frings from this evening's World Cup semi-final between Germany and Italy would appear to tilt the odds towards the Azzurri. However, the circumstances surrounding the Werder Bremen midfielder's ban may compensate for his absence.
Frings has been a crucial figure for Germany. His ability to subdue opponents such as Argentina's Juan Roman Riquelme has enabled the more attacking midfielders around him to flourish. But he was caught on film punching Argentina's Julio Cruz in the brawl that followed Germany's quarter-final penalty shoot-out victory over Argentina.
Fifa, after a four-hour hearing in which Frings was represented by Oliver Bierhoff, the team manager, and a leading German sports lawyer, fined him and banned him for two matches, the latter suspended for six months. He would thus be available for the final, if Germany get there.
That will be harder without Frings. "He blocked out Riquelme and we want him to do the same to Totti," said his manager, Jürgen Klinsmann, before the ban was announced. There is no obvious replacement. Tim Borowski has been the back-up midfielder but Sebastian Kehl may get the nod as he plays his club games at Dortmund and is more of a sitting midfielder.
The sentence has been greeted with fury in Germany. This is partly because Argentina were clearly the antagonists, but cannot suffer such a devastating punishment as they are already out of the competition, but primarily because Fifa originally declared no German player was guilty, then re-opened the case after Italian television found film of Frings' punch. "The credit goes to our group working in Munich," said Giovanni Bruno, director of Italy's Sky Sport station.
This could rebound on Italy as it may bring the German team closer together, much as the Italian one has responded positively to the ongoing Serie A scandal, and Gianluca Pessotto's injuries.
Germany's record at Borussia Dortmund's ground is: played 14, won 13, drawn one, lost none (the exception is a 1-1 draw with Wales in 1977). "There's nothing like the atmosphere in Dortmund," said Klinsmann. "It is like a volcano which will hopefully erupt."
Klinsmann has good reason to love the Westfalenstadion. It was there, in March, his job was saved. Three weeks earlier Germany were thrashed by Italy in Florence. When the relentlessly upbeat Klinsmann searched for positives in the wake of the 4-1 defeat one he found was the proximity of the next match, against the USA in Dortmund three weeks later. It seemed to offer the danger of further humiliation as much as redemption, especially when Germany were booed off at half-time with the game goalless against an understrength American side. Klinsmann's dismissal seemed imminent but his team rallied to win 4-1.
"Morale was at rock-bottom after Italy," said Philipp Lahm yesterday, "It was an awful performance. We felt an obligation to play well against the US and rekindle the World Cup mood. Fortunately we managed to win by a wide margin. The game in Italy is not in our heads now."
This echoes the word from the Italy camp. Nevertheless, the memory of Luca Toni and Alberto Gilardino shredding the German back four may persuade Marcello Lippi to re-unite them tonight. Alessandro Nesta is injured but Francesco Totti, Gianluca Zambrotta and Gennaro Gattuso are back.
Yet Germany are slight favourites despite losing Frings because, said Michael Ballack: "We're on a roll, we have a lot of belief in ourselves, and we'll have a wall of white behind us."Reuse content