Toni the saviour as Ballack denies move to Chelsea

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The Independent Football

One of the most significant international friendlies before the World Cup finals is in danger of being overshadowed here, both by Francesco Totti's fractured ankle and Michael Ballack's career plans.

Totti, the fulcrum of the Italian team, is out for at least three months after being injured 10 days ago. Italian dreams of a fourth World Cup, which had only recently been rekindled as a pedestrian qualifying campaign gave way to a 15-match unbeaten run, are again turning to ash.

Ballack will play tonight, but it is where he plays next season which is at issue. His Bayern Munich contract expires in June and it was claimed on Monday that a deal had been done with Chelsea. Having spoken at length to the German media on Sunday, Ballack did not appear yesterday but Harald Stenger, the team's communications director, said he had spoken to the player and his agent and both denied it. Ballack had added that he had not, as claimed, held talks with Jose Mourinho, or been to London. His agent, Michael Becker, later concurred in a carefully worded statement.

Jürgen Klinsmann preferred not to get involved, saying only that he hoped his captain would make a choice he was happy with; but Jens Lehmann was less reticent. The Arsenal goalkeeper, who will win his 30th cap tonight, said: "It's unlikely he will go to Chelsea as they already have Frank Lampard. They are quite similar players." Arsenal then? "I'll have to ask the boss," said a laughing Lehmann, before confirming he would accept Arsenal's offer of a new contract.

Having kept France at bay in Germany's last international, Lehmann could edge ahead of Oliver Kahn were he to keep another clean sheet tonight, but one Italian, in particular, will be craving a goal. Luca Toni, in front of his home support, hopes to cement his World Cup place.

The 28-year-old had to take his boots the length and breadth of Italy, and down to Serie C, before his break-through in his mid-twenties. He is a strapping centre-forward who has caught the public's imagination.

Toni hails from Pavullo, a village north of Florence. Two moderate years at his local club, Modena, were followed by spells at Empoli, Fiorenzuola (two goals in 25 Serie C matches), Treviso, Vicenza, Brescia and the Sicilian port of Palermo. It was here he finally came of age with 50 goals in two seasons earning him an Azzurri call-up in Marcello Lippi's first match in charge, and a £7m move to Fiorentina, where his goal-a-game ratio quickly made him a cult hero.

While Toni is the leading scorer under Lippi with six goals, and his partnership with Alberto Gilardino is full of promise, there is a threat. Christian Vieri has been recalled to the squad since gaining regular football with Monaco. However, his involvement tonight is in doubt after turning an ankle in training. For Germany, the question mark is whether Chelsea's Robert Huth, or Per Mertesacker partners the returning Christoph Metzelder.

Italy (probable, 4-3-1-2): Buffon (Juventus); Zaccardo (Palermo), Cannavaro (Juventus), Nesta (Milan), Grosso (Palermo); Camoranesi (Juventus), Pirlo (Milan), De Rossi (Roma); Del Piero (Juventus); Gilardino (Milan), Toni (Fiorentina).

Germany (probable, 4-4-2): Lehmann (Arsenal); Friedrich (Hertha Berlin), Metzelder (B Dortmund), Mertesacker (Hanover 96), Lahm (Bayern Munich); Deisler (Bayern Munich), Frings (Werder Bremen), Ballack (Bayern Munich), Schneider (Bayer Leverkusen); Klose (Werder Bremen), Podolski (Cologne).

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