By ANDREW DAMPF
The Associated Press
Monday, June 12, 2006; 11:56 PM
HANOVER, Germany -- Italy responded to the corruption scandal back home with some of the most exciting soccer of this World Cup.
Andrea Pirlo converted a set play to perfection for the Azzurri's first goal in the 40th minute, and Vincenzo Iaquinta finished off a 2-0 win over Ghana in the 83rd.
Italy produced 13 shots on goal to Ghana's four and hit the crossbar and goalpost once each.
"It was the best soccer of the tournament so far," said FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who attended Monday's game.
Last week, Blatter issued an ultimatum to Italian authorities, telling them to decide on punishments for the scandal by the end of next month. Prosecutors in four Italian cities are investigating allegations of match-fixing, referee arrangements and illegal betting.
"It's a nice complement, especially coming from the top," Italy coach Marcello Lippi said of Blatter's comments. "We had an enormous number of possibilities to score."
Ghana missed a number of chances, but showed itself worthy of playing among soccer's elite.
"I think we did our best tonight, and our best was not enough," midfielder Michel Essien said. "They are one of the favorites, and to play football like this against them is not easy."
The win may have been costly for Italy. Playmaker Francesco Totti exited the game after taking a hit on his surgically repaired left leg in the second half. His status for Saturday's game with the United States is uncertain.
Totti didn't seem too concerned.
"I took a hit below the knee," he said. "I'm happy with how I played tonight. The more I play, the better my condition gets."
The Azzurri also picked up three yellow cards.
Still, Italy stretched its unbeaten streak to 19 games and moved into a tie with the Czech Republic atop the group standings. The Czechs beat the United States 3-0 earlier Monday.
Italy has not lost since falling to Slovenia in October 2004, compiling 11 wins and eight draws since then.
Lippi was not sure whether to start Totti, who had surgery in February, until the day before the match, leaving open a number of lineup possibilities. Ghana captain Stephen Appiah, who played for several years in the Italian league, told his teammates not to worry about Totti or whoever might have replaced him.
"Andrea Pirlo, he's the danger man," Appiah said.
He was correct.
With both teams threatening often but failing to capitalize, Italy changed its tactics slightly on its 10th corner kick.
Instead of directing the ball in front of the goal, Totti slipped a short pass back to Pirlo beyond the corner of the area and the midfielder sent in a low, angled shot from 22 yards that found its way into the net through a maze of players. It was Pirlo's fifth goal in his 23rd appearance for Italy.
"Today my son asked me to score. I'm happy I pulled it off," Pirlo said.
Totti exited in the 55th after sticking his left leg in for a tackle on John Painstil. After writhing in pain for a few seconds and grasping his leg, Totti was eventually helped up by team physician Enrico Castellacci.
Iaquinta came on in the 64th. His goal was the product of a defensive error by Samuel Kuffour, after which Iaquinta sailed in alone, faked out goalkeeper Richard Kingston, and put the ball into the unguarded net.
"To score in your first World Cup match is such an emotional event," Iaquinta said. "I couldn't believe the opportunity that Kuffour presented me with."
Ghana next plays the Czechs, also on Saturday.
"I think they deserved to win the match. They scored two goals and we missed some chances," Ghana coach Ratomir Dujkovic said. "We lost one match and now we'll try to win the next."
That would be Saturday against the Czech Republic.