EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- After a fast and furious first half, Italy's Roberto Baggio and Bulgaria's Hristo Stoitchkov sat out much of the anticlimactic second stanza.
But Baggio's two first-half goals did enough early damage to give Italy a 2-1 semifinal victory over upstart Bulgaria before an almost entirely pro-Italian crowd of 77,094, the largest of the seven World Cup games at Giants Stadium.
Italy moved into Sunday's final against Brazil, with the champion assured of securing a record-breaking fourth World Cup. Italy will be making its fifth appearance in the final, suffering its lone loss in the 1970 final to a Pele-led Brazil.
This year the Brazilians will have to contend with Baggio, who did not play in the final 20 minutes against Bulgaria yesterday because of a pulled hamstring.
"I felt a very sharp pain after receiving a push," Baggio said. "Apparently, something is wrong with my muscle. Exactly what, I don't know. I will know more tomorrow."
After Bulgaria's scoreless second half sealed Italy's victory, Baggio, the world's Player of the Year, left the field crying on the shoulder of assistant coach Gigi Riva and waving to the Italian fans.
The tears were tears of joy.
"This is my work, this is my life," said Baggio, who hid his black ponytail by wearing a black baseball cap backward. "It is made up of sweat and tears. This time I cried because I'm very, very happy."
Baggio's two goals came during an 18-minute first-half surge by Italy, which fired six unanswered shots at the Bulgarians.
In the 21st minute, Baggio beat two Bulgarian defenders and scored from 20 yards out. He dribbled toward the center of the penalty box and kicked the ball past goalie Borislav Mikhailov into the lower right corner of the net.
Five minutes later, Baggio took a beautiful chip from midfielder Demetrio Albertini, avoided being called offside, and scored from 12 yards out to make it 2-0.
In between Baggio's goals, Italy almost added two more. Albertini hit the left post in the 25th minute, and 25 seconds later Mikhailov barely deflected another Albertini shot over the crossbar.
Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi called his team's first-half shooting barrage its best soccer of the tournament.
"For the first 35 minutes of the game, the team played at its highest level," Sacchi said. "It's very, very hard, in this part of the world, to play for 90 minutes in this heat."
Bulgaria did not seem to mind. Trailing 2-0, it scored on a penalty kick by its own star, Stoitchkov, in the 44th minute.
The foul occurred when Italian defender Alessandro Costacurta pushed Nasko Sirakov over goalie Gianluca Pagliuca. Costacurta received his second yellow card and will not play in the World Cup final.
In the second half, Italy's defense held. With Baggio out of the tTC game, it needed to. It helped that Stoitchkov left the game with a leg injury eight minutes after Baggio did.
Both Stoitchkov and Bulgarian coach Dimitar Penev blamed their team's failure to score in the second half on the officiating.
"God is still a Bulgarian, but the referee is French," said Stoitchkov, whose goal was his sixth of the tournament.
God was indeed on Bulgaria's side during most of this tournament.
Bulgaria got into the World Cup by winning a qualifying match with France in the final 10 seconds. A 3-0 opening-round loss to Nigeria marked the country's 17th World Cup match without a victory. The team responded by rattling off upset wins over Greece, Argentina, Mexico and three-time winner Germany.
Then Italy ruined Bulgaria's first semifinal appearance, thanks to the two goals by Baggio.
The player whom the Italians call the Divine One now has five goals, and his team, which lost its opening-round match to Ireland, 1-0, at Giants Stadium, now appears on the verge of making soccer history.
"If we look back at the way we started in this stadium, we will observe that in soccer, as in life, nothing is certain," Sacchi said.
* Italy 2, Bulgaria 1
* Brazil 1, Sweden 0
* Bulgaria vs. Sweden, Pasadena, Calif., 3:35 p.m., ESPN
* Italy vs. Brazil, at Pasadena, Calif., 3:35 p.m., Chs. 13, 7