It's become fashionable to see friendly internationals as pointless. In a literal sense, they are, of course: neither money nor trophies are at stake, and the very idea of professional players risking their health for no tangible benefits (apart from the profits made by the federations and TV stations) is anathema to club supporters and managers.
Some games, however, will always resonate stronger than their practical inconsequence might suggest. For Germany, for example, few games are fraught with more meaning than appointments with Italy, the bête noire of the DFB (German Football Association) team. It's never managed to beat the Squadra Azzurra in a tournament and even the last success in a friendly match dates back to a 2-0 win in 1995 in Zürich. To make matters worse, Italian club football has consistently outperformed the Bundesliga for the last few decades, as German stars like Lothar Matthäus, Matthias Sammer and Jürgen Klinsmann were routinely snapped up by Serie A giants. The economic meltdown of the Italian game and the disastrous performance of Marcello Lippi's men at the World Cup in South Africa have changed the dynamics somewhat but a basic sense of envy and inferiority has remained.
On Wednesday, the score would be settled. Revenge would be had -- for 1970 (World Cup semifinal defeat), for 1982 (World Cup final defeat) and for 2006, when Fabio Grosso's semifinal screamer in the Westfalenstadion put paid to the German "summer fairy tale." Before the rematch in Signal Iduna Park, the German papers were juxtaposing stories about the Italian decline with gushing tributes to the new generation of players that clubs like Borussia Dortmund were producing. Eighteen-year-old Mario Götze came in for specific praise. On the other hand, the naturalization of Brazilian-born midfielder Thiago Motta, who was about to have his debut, was seen as further evidence of the crisis on the Southern side of the Alps.
A look at Wednesday's lineups showed that the "new, young Germany" vs. "old Italy" narrative wouldn't quite work, however. From Jogi Löw's point of view, the game was supposed to be all about the introduction of new players and looking at alternatives -- but in the end, his desire to beat the bogey team proved greater than the mood for experiments. Young Dortmund players Mats Hummels, Marcel Schmelzer, Mario Götze, Kevin Großkreutz and Sven Bender had to content themselves with a space on the bench. The starters were essentially Löw's World Cup team from last year, with two exceptions: Holger Badstuber, 21, played in place of veteran Arne Friedrich (Wolfsburg) and Hamburg's Dennis Aogo was a surprise choice as left back ahead of Jérôme Boateng (Manchester City).
Italy's Cesare Prandelli fielded the relatively inexperienced center-back pairing of Inter's Andrea Ranocchia, 22, and Juventus' Leonardo Bonucci, 23, and gave a starting berth to Inter's Giampaolo Pazzini. With Gianluigi Buffon the only 2006 survivor, this felt like a new Italy.
Germany played in the familiar 4-2-3-1 system with Miroslav Klose as the sole striker in place of the injured Mario Gomez (both from Bayern Munich), with Italy in a 4-3-1-2 and Stefano Mauri (nominally) "in the hole" behind Pazzini and Antonio Cassano, who would prove influential.
Germany started better; some slick passing from the mercurial Mesut Özil created havoc in the blue back line. Prandelli showed that negativity is not his game, either. The visitors used every opportunity to play diagonal balls up the front men and push on.
"We had problems with our possession play on the bad pitch," Bayern Munich midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger admitted later on but those problems didn't stop them from crafting an exquisite opener. Thomas Müller (Bayern Munich) played a quick one-two with Özil, then unselfishly squared it for Klose. Gianlugi Buffon got a hand on the shot but couldn't prevent the ball from crossing the line in the 16th minute. "A great goal, brilliantly created," gushed Löw.
A minute later, the hosts nearly doubled their advantage. Once again Klose bore down on Buffon's goal but this time the veteran keeper would not be beaten. Germany kept flooding forward but Italy stood firm. Then Germany got lucky: Dutch Eric Braamhaar referee inexplicably waved play on two occasions when Per Mertesacker brought down Daniele De Rossi and Cassano.
Löw brought on local hero Götze for Müller at halftime; Prandelli substituted his strikers. Pazzini and Cassano made way for Marco Borriello and Giuseppe Rossi. The pace of the game dropped a little. On a difficult pitch, Germany seemed content to keep possession while the visitors struggled to create goal-scoring opportunities. A flurry of substitutions on both sides after the hour mark took the sting out as well as the structure of the match but then Rossi pounced on some slack defending. Aogo and Hummels, on for Holger Badstuber, were slow to clear the line and enabled the Villarreal striker to run toward Neuer. The keeper saved the first shot but Rossi stabbed in the rebound in the 81st minute. Stunned by the equalizer, Germany upped the tempo again. Sami Khedira's left-footed shot was saved by Buffon; Italy lacked composure on the counterattack.
In the end, Germany's wait continued. "Jogi, why can't we beat the Italians?" cried the Bild headline in exasperation. Buffon smiled and waved to the away supporters, many of whom were locals of Italian descent. After South Africa, after the first disappointing Prandelli games, this felt better. Much better. Like a victory, almost. Prandelli was especially happy.
"This was the best game since I started this job," said the 53-year-old. "Today we played against one of the best teams in the world and we played well. We tried to exert pressure and score a goal. We're not quite at their level yet but we've closed the gap."
Löw and his men, meanwhile, couldn't hide their disappointment.
"We didn't do it tonight but I have great confidence in this team. I'm sure we can beat them in the future," said Schweinsteiger. The Italians, he added, defended well "on a pitch that made it easier for the defending team."
He also felt the German media had vastly overplayed the Italian team's demise. "You could see today that they have some very good individuals," he said.
Löw was critical about his side's second-half performance. "We didn't keep the rhythm high. We tried to keep the lead instead. That's something the Italians do much better than us."
Klose, too, bemoaned the fact that Germany was "unable to keep going."
The lack of urgency after taking the lead notwithstanding, there were few collective lessons that could be learned, few pointers. Along with Germany's terrible record against the Italians, Löw's biggest problem remains unchanged. He will have to find a away to integrate the multitude of new talent without upsetting his key personnel and compromising a system that patently works. "Some problem," one or two of his less fortunate colleagues might think.
Khedira looked a little low on confidence after coming in for criticism in Madrid. Mertesacker, who's enduring a nightmare season with Werder, will do well to ward off the challenge from Hummels in the long run. Aogo might make way for Boateng again.
But these are relatively minor issues. The rest of the players look both happy in their roles and settled. No wonder Löw was unwilling to discuss the one contentious issue on the horizon, the future of former captain Michael Ballack, 34.
"We'll meet in March for a talk. Then we'll see," he said -- with a discernible lack of conviction.