(Chris McGrath, Getty Images)
So we’ve finally reached the World Cup final. Thirty-two teams started, but only two remain. This is a final 24 years in the making, with Germany beating Argentina in the final of the 1990 World Cup, the last time either team won the most coveted trophy in the world of soccer, perhaps even in all of sports.
Germany comes into this match riding on a wave of momentum after a 7-1 thrashing of host-nation, Brazil. Argentina, meanwhile, comes into the final off the back of a hard-fought victory in penalties against the Netherlands. In most pundits’ eyes, the Germans are the clear favorites, their precision passing and dynamic movement proving too much for every opponent they have faced thus far. However, the South American contingent, battered as they may be with injuries to Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero (although the latter made a cameo appearance against the Dutch) will not roll over for anyone. Plus, with an Argentinian Pope, perhaps some divine intervention will steer La Albiceleste to a win.
Against Argentina, Joachim Low will probably field the same 4-2-3-1 lineup he started against France and Brazil:
One of the talking points about this selection is whether or not Low will choose to move Lahm back into midfield to try and man-mark Messi. While this might seem like a good idea, Low might be reticent to make this tactical switch given the success he’s had over the last two games with the above selection; in my opinion, he’ll probably keep Lahm at right-back, trusting that Khedira and Schweinsteger can do enough to contain “La Pulga.” Mats Hummels’ fitness is also a possible problem, the central defender struggling with a knee injury since the beginning of the tournament and being withdrawn at halftime against Brazil; at the time of writing, his inclusion as a starter is up in the air, so expect Per Mertesacker to slot in if injury does indeed keep the Borusssia Dortumnd star on the bench.
Unlike his opposite number, Alejandro Sabella has much less room with which to tinker tactically. Expect a starting lineup resembling a 4-3-3, with Messi free to roam as the “false nine.”
At the time of writing, Angel DiMaria’s inclusion in the starting lineup remains a mystery; he was on the bench against the Netherlands, but he is still racing to be fully fit by Sunday. The Real Madrid winger provides great pace and dribbling skills, but the likelihood of re-injury is too high to risk him as a starter; Perez will probably keep his spot on the left. Another X-factor is the inclusion of Sergio Aguero. Against the Netherlands, the Manchester City man played his first minutes since his injury earlier in the tournament, coming on for Higuain during extra time. However, Aguero was wholly ineffective against the Dutch, so expect both Higuain and Lavezzi to retain their place as starters.
A lot of people are expecting Germany to run roughshod over Argentina, much like they did against Brazil; however, while the Brazil game is still fresh in everyone’s mind, one must keep in mind that Argentina will not prove as discombobulated, and frankly overwhelmed, as Brazil. Against the Selecao, Die Mannschaft faced virtually no opposition except for maybe the first ten minutes, when the Brazilians started strong. From there, it was boys against men, with Germany stomping away at Brazil like it was nobody’s business.
Much has been made about the performances of Toni Kroos. The
Kroos vs Brazil (squawka.com)
midfielder has been very important for his team, picking out teammates to incorporate into attack and even scoring twice against Brazil. Against the Selecao, Kroos accumulated a more-than-impressive 93% pass accuracy and was very active in his distribution. Of note is Kroos’ tendency to send long passes over to the right side, and why wouldn’t he, when on that side he can pick out Philipp Lahm and Thomas Muller?
(Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
Muller brings to Germany someone who provides a lot of movement up front, unsettling defenses by constantly switching with Miroslav Klose as the lone striker and by moving wide and cutting in from the right. Klose, too, provides his fair share of movement off the ball as well as an instinctive nose for goal. Key to Germany’s attack will be the dynamic movement of all their pieces, as the Germans bring a short touch game reminiscent of Barcelona during the Pep Guardiola era. These touches, combined with their exquisite movement, are enough to unsettle any defense. Add to the mix Sami Khedira’s ability to pick out passes from deep positions, and you have a German side capable of pounding down the door that is the opposition’s defense.
On the other end, Argentina will have to rely heavily on the
Mascherano vs Netherlands (squawka.com)
defensive work of Javier Mascherano. Before the game against Netherlands, I said the following: “Mascherano may turn out to be more important than Messi in this one.” And indeed he was; while many expected a big performance from Messi, the diminutive Argentine was met with an inspired Ron Vlaar as well as a concerted effort by the Dutch to neutralize his movement by marking him with multiple men. On the other hand, Mascherano proved instrumental in thwarting Dutch attacks and in organizing Argentina’s lines. While “El Jefecito” knows how to distribute the ball in attack, as he did against Belgium, in the defensive end is where he’ll probably be most called to action against the dynamic German attack.
With Mascherano likely defending from deep, the question becomes, “Will Germany keep Argentina on the back foot the whole time?” The answer to that question is, “No.” Yes, Germany provides a threat up front, that much is crystal clear. However, the recent performances of Lucas Biglia, Enzo Perez, and Ezequiel Lavezzi should provide comfort to Argentina fans. All three men have assumed defensive responsibilities, marking closely and closing down gaps quickly. Against the Netherlands, this allowed Argentina to recover the ball in their own half and to start attacks from the back.
(AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYSGABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Argentina, then, does have offensive options. Perez has shown movement and pace that almost makes losing Di Maria seem like not too big of a deal; this same movement allows Argentina an outlet from the back and a link to the front. They can attack down the left, with Rojo pushing up and combining with Lavezzi, like they did in the game against Switzerland (although Rojo’s somewhat poor crossing and the Argentina players’ height disadvantage might make this the less desirable route).
Conversely, they can do as they did against the Netherlands and attack down the right in an attempt to exploit both Mesut Ozil’s general unwillingness to track back and Benedikt Hoewedes’ lack of pace. Regardless of the choice, Perez will be instrumental in ushering Argentina out of their own half; when he came off in extra time against the Netherlands, Argentina were pinned back, forced to absorb mounting pressure while relying on the heroics of Mascherano to keep the Dutch from scoring.
Mathieu Valbuena getting a ball past Philipp Lahm. (AP/Getty Images South America)
In truth, this game will prove to be more evenly matched than many observers believe. The German attack will undoubtedly provide a lot of trouble for the Argentina defense, but while the Argentines’ back four struggled in the beginning of the World Cup, they have improved as the tournament has progressed. The German back line, meanwhile, has already shown its own weaknesses. In the game against France, Mathieu Valbuena attacked Germany’s right side in the first half before focusing on the left side in the second half. On the left, he was often able to get in between Lahm and Jerome Boateng, cutting back and facilitating a few shots on target that Manuel Neuer did well to save. Had France been less profligate in their finishing, they may have even won against Die Mannschaft.
Against Brazil, the Germans showed the same weakness that they showed against Algeria: balls over the top. In the Algeria game, Manuel Neuer showed why he is the best “sweeper keeper” in the game, coming out of his box often to intercept Algerian attacks with his feet; against Brazil, he was visibly upset when a ball over the top beat both Lahm and Boateng, allowing Oscar to put one past the German shot stopper.
We’re set for a classic World Cup final. As I said in the beginning, this is 24 years in the making. On the German end, Joachim Low will surely see this as the culmination of a project he’s taken part in for the last ten years, ever since he started with Die Mannschaft as Jürgen Klinsmann’s assistant right after Euro 2004. During this ten-year span, he’s taken Germany to third place at the 2006 World Cup (as Klinsmann’s assistant), second place at Euro 2008, third place at the 2010 World Cup, and a shocking semifinal elimination at Euro 2012. Surely he’s overdue for a trophy.
Argentina, meanwhile, are looking to break what many fans believe to be a curse. La Albiceleste has not tasted World Cup glory since 1986, when the legendary Diego Armando Maradona hoisted the cup against the very same team who beat his country in the final four years later and who now, in 2014, will look to do the same again. To many, this is also Lionel Messi’s World Cup, perhaps his final opportunity to carve his name into the pillar of the immortals and to cement himself as the greatest footballer the world has ever seen. This is pride, this is honor, this is, perhaps, a legacy.
(Clive Rose / Getty Images Sport)
I’ve read many a report predicting Kroos vs. Mascherano as the defining matchup for this game, but I actually see Biglia being more instrumental against Kroos, his ability to close down quickly possibly preventing the German from picking out passes as comfortably as he would like. I know that Germany brings a lot of firepower upfront, but I also think too many people are underestimating the solidity of Argentina’s defense. When Germany get into the final third, they will have to contend against both a back line that has not allowed a single goal during the knockout stages and an inspired Mascherano. Upfront, Argentina’s attackers may not be as impressive as Germany’s (except for maybe Messi, of course), but I think they can exploit the Germans’ defensive frailties.
Agree? Disagree? Am I a genius or an idiot? Tell me on Twitter, @ChinchillaRudy
(Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
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*All stats taken from Squawka.com