Ballack gets yet another shot at final redemption
It is just as well that Germany's captain Michael Ballack is gracious in defeat. He has endured plenty of practice on the biggest of occasions.
The threat hanging over him for an unexpectedly long time here last night was of another sickening fall at the last hurdle but one, to complete a season of near-but-far misses that would have rivalled his ghastly season six years ago.
Ballack famously missed the 2002 World Cup final after taking a yellow card for a professional foul that ensured his team would go through. It completed as frustrating a season of near misses as any player can have experienced, Bayer Leverkusen becoming known as Neverkusen after finishing second in three competitions. Denied again two years ago when Germany's young team lost a gripping semi-final to Italy, he had fared even worse in competing at European Championships with another Neverwinning team, spectacular fall guys in 2000 (they even lost to England) and 2004.
This time, he went to the finals on the back of three failures – two of them admittedly brave – for Chelsea in the Champions League, the Premier League and the Carling Cup. There were times last night when he must have feared another bitter disappointment at the hands of Turkey before all came right at the last.
Even before the shock of Ugur Boral's opening goal, he had been vocalising the discontent clearly felt by the Germany coach, Joachim Löw, on the touchline. The pair are close and Löw's captain had been instrumental in persuading him to switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation. The key to the new system was having two defensive midfield players, giving Ballack the licence to go forward.
It meant a tiring shift for Mehmet Aurelio, the Turkish-Brazilian defensive midfield player charged with following him around, since Ballack will complete 12km – seven and a half miles – in an evening's work. The Chelsea man's mileage was increased early on by having to help out a defence incapable of finding a white shirt once they had won the ball. But once he dropped deep, there was insufficient support for Miroslav Klose.
A flash of the Ballack seen at Stamford Bridge throughout the second half of last season – surely one of the successes of Avram Grant's reign – came in the 17th minute, feeding Lukas Podolski on the left and finding time to adjust the captain's armband before darting forward for a header from the resulting cross that was blocked only with some difficulty. That was soon after having his ankle trodden on by Aurelio, a player inclined to take the term "marker" too literally.
The blow inflicted by Boral will have hurt more and Ballack was quick to make his displeasure known to the normally reliable twin towers in the centre of Germany's defence, Christoph Metzelder and Per Mertesacker. Even after Bastian Schweinsteiger's equaliser, he walked back in deep conversation with Simon Rolfes, one of the two midfielders supposed to be protecting the back line.
Surprised, perhaps, that Aurelio did not follow him into the German dressing room at the interval, Ballack returned to continue playing me-and-my-shadow. When he next found space it was Hamit Altintop who was adjudged to have fouled him, but Ballack's free-kick was hit into a wall that did not fall for the bluff and jump over it.
When Semih Senturk tucked in Sabri Sarioglu's cross, however, Ballack could do no more than clap his hands and rally the troops for one more effort at saving his season, which Philipp Lahm's fine finish delivered in the exhilarating style now expected of this tournament.
Thunderstorm interrupts BBC
A thunderstorm in Vienna severely interrupted the BBC's coverage of the semi-final in Basle last night. The storm over the Austrian capital, where television pictures were relayed from, cut the feed and viewers had to make do with a blank screen and commentary from BBC radio. During one break, Germany took the lead at 2-1. Strong winds and lightning also forced the closure of fan zones in Vienna.