ROME, JULY 2 -- Only a stunning upset or two in semifinals Tuesday and Wednesday will prevent what has seemed for weeks an inevitable showdown for the World Cup between Italy and West Germany here in Olympic Stadium Sunday.
Both Italy and West Germany have demonstrated clear superiority as this month-long tournament has evolved to the final four. Italy is the only team that has won all its games and is unscored on, in the tradition of great Italian defense. West Germany is the one team that has shown a willingness to attack and has scored consistently.
Italy has a crowd of outstanding players, including hot goaltender Walter Zenga and celebrity scorer Salvatore Schillaci, who shoots around the field as if he were riding an Italian motorbike.
West Germany has one of the game's finest players, attacking midfielder Lothar Matthaeus; plus high-scoring forwards Rudi Voeller and Jurgen Klinsmann, and a strong supporting cast assembled by coach Franz Beckenbauer, the once-great player known as "The Kaiser." It is being called West Germany's finest team.
But first Italy must face Argentina Tuesday night in Naples, and West Germany has to play England Wednesday night in Turin (both games are scheduled for 2 p.m., EDT).
The Italians' task would seem greater; opposite them will be Diego Maradona, one of the world's outstanding athletes who, even injured, has been carrying the defending Cup champions.
Maradona, who has a small but sturdy build of 5 feet 5 and 150 pounds, is playing with a badly swollen left ankle and has continued in the finals to take a physical pounding unlike any other, the most fouled player in the Cup finals. When he breaks into the clear, he often is taken down hard and left to lie in agony. In northern Italy, he often is accused of whining to officials, trying to get more than he is entitled to in the form of a free kick. Sometimes he overdoes it; he is always looking for an edge.
Maradona is the savior of southern Italian football, the hero of Napoli of the Italian club league, and so will be playing on his adopted home field Tuesday night against Italy. Maradona has an American sense for hype and gamesmanship; he has let it be known to Italian writers that Neapolitans will be rooting for Argentina and not their home country Tuesday night because of everything he has done for them.
"Napoli non e` Italia!" screamed the Maradona quote in the main headline in today's Italian sports newspaper, Corriere dello Sport. "Naples is not Italy."
And "Napoli mi ama" -- "Naples loves me," he is quoted next to a photograph of himself in prayerful pose.
Trying to get the crowd on Argentina's side, Maradona is reminding Naples' fans they were looked down on by northern Italians before he arrived and delivered two Italian league titles. Maradona isn't letting Italy's coach, Azeglio Vicini, get away with saying that, without question, all of Naples will be for the home country.
"It's now convenient to say how important a place Naples is," said Maradona.
(Maradona's Napoli teammate but his opponent Tuesday, aptly named midfielder Fernando De Napoli, nicknamed "Rambo" because of his resemblance to Sylvester Stallone, said, "I hate to tell Diego, but Naples will be rooting for us and not for him.")
Still, the Italian team will have its problems with Maradona. It will attack hard, trying to get a two-goal lead. Brazil learned that a team can't play a 0-0 game against Maradona; he dashed past two Brazilians and threaded a pass between two more -- perhaps the best play of the finals -- to set up the goal that sent favored Brazil home.
Even a 1-0 lead against Maradona isn't safe. Italy doesn't want its fate decided by penalty kicks. Even with five straight shutouts, the Italians have to feel some urgency about the semifinal. But Italy has been continuously improving.
"We played our best game so far in this Cup," Vicini said after Italy's 1-0 victory over Ireland in Saturday night's quarterfinal.
West Germany-England lacks the intrigue offered by Maradona. The West Germans are as straightforward as can be about their hopes, and make no attempt to hide their confidence. "We want to reach the final," Matthaeus said. "This is the objective we said we'd aim for since the beginning of the Cup."
"We're all playing really well," Klinsmann added.
England's coach, Bobby Robson, reminded reporters Sunday night in Naples after his team's narrow victory over Cameroon that most had predicted an early departure for the English. But he admitted it will be difficult to come back against the West Germans after two straight energy-sapping extra-time victories.
On the positive side for England, striker Gary Lineker and midfielder Paul Gascoigne have reached peak form at the right time.
Lineker seemed destined to remain below par after hurting his right big toe. More efficient than flashy, Lineker, 29, took advantage of a Cameroon defense weakened by the absence of four starters, including two deep backs, to break clear repeatedly, finally drawing two penalty kicks and making both in the 3-2 extra-time victory.
Gascoigne -- known as "Gazza" -- is a blocky midfielder who has been overweight but has trimmed down. He has some electricity about him. When Cameroon took a 2-1 lead Sunday night, it was Gascoigne who moved the ball with determination, carrying his teammates with him.
The English also have an excellent goaltender in the curly-haired, 40-year-old Peter Shilton. Clearly, the experienced Shilton kept his team in the game against Cameroon. Early on, the dangerous Francois Omam Biyik broke in on him and Shilton, in a daring move, came out to meet him. The result was that Shilton took a cannon shot to the body from about eight feet that otherwise would have enabled Cameroon to take the lead.
England's effort Wednesday comes once more against the backdrop of its hyper fans, who have made this an unwanted team by host cities. The 5,000 Italian police and security force assigned to prevent outbreaks by hooligans has now reached its fourth city. So far, there have been no deaths as a result of violence -- and the Italian police have received widespread praise.
Turin is a sticky situation. It is a sedate and reserved city, except for its soccer. As home of the Juventus club, it is a capital of the sport. But 35 Juventus fans were killed five years ago in Heysel Stadium in Brussels in an outbreak begun by English hooligans. Some Turin city officials fear reprisals. "We are waiting for you hooligans in Turin," was a warning scrawled on a wall in the city.
Like most of Italy, Turin rooted hard for Cameroon Sunday night. Wherever crowds gathered to watch on television, great roars went up when Cameroon scored its two goals. Now that the English have prevailed, once more the disheartening but necessary scene will be repeated: the armored trucks, the drawn rifles, the mounted police.
The rowdies have not challenged this imposing force since they threw rocks June 16 at police who had erected a barricade to scatter 3,000 fans marching toward the stadium in Cagliari before the game with the Dutch.
WEST GERMANY (13): Lothar Matthaeus, 4; Jurgen Klinsmann, 3; Rudi Voeller, 3; Uwe Bein, 1; Andreas Brehme, 1; Pierre Littbarski, 1.
ITALY (7): Salvatore Schillaci, 4; Roberto Baggio, 1; Giuseppe Giannini, 1; Aldo Serena, 1.
ENGLAND (6): Gary Lineker, 3; David Platt, 2; Mark Wright, 1.
ARGENTINA (4): Jorge Burruchaga, 1; Claudio Caniggia, 1; Pedro Monzon, 1; Pedro Troglio, 1.