RIO DE JANEIRO — The best player in the world goes up against the ultimate team machine, on the world’s biggest stage.
When Lionel Messi’s Argentina takes on Germany in Sunday’s World Cup final, it looks at first glance like a meeting between brilliant individual scoring talent and the tight discipline of a collective unit.
But this game will be about much more than that.
Argentina has shown that it can play just as tactically as the Germans, eking out narrow victories and doing whatever is needed to win. Germany, meanwhile, has put on two of the most explosive displays of the tournament — beating Portugal 4-0 in its opening game and then demolishing host Brazil 7-1 in the semifinals.
Add in the rich history between these two teams — who faced each other in two straight World Cup finals in 1986 and 1990, winning one each — and it’s anyone’s guess who will come out on top at the Maracana Stadium.
Here is a look at how the two finalists compare:
Manuel Neuer’s reputation as one of the best goalkeepers in the world has only grown in Brazil, where he has been one of Germany’s best players throughout the tournament, especially in the knockout rounds. Aside from being a first-class shot stopper, the Bayern Munich goalkeeper showed his versatility by repeatedly rushing out to help the defense in the second-round win over Algeria. He then made key saves to deny Karim Benzema an equalizer for France in the quarterfinals, and a number of impressive stops against Brazil.
Sergio Romero has answered most sceptics who questioned whether he was good enough to play for a top team in a World Cup. Romero was only a backup for his club Monaco this past season, but came through big in the penalty shootout against the Netherlands with two saves to send his team into the final. He has kept three straight clean sheets in the knockout rounds, but will face his greatest challenge yet against the clinical Germans.
Germany’s defense has improved vastly since coach Joachim Loew took captain Philip Lahm out of midfield and put him back in his favored position as right back after an erratic display against Algeria in the second round. Mats Hummels has been a steady anchor in central defense, and Germany had little trouble neutralizing the explosive attacks of both France and Brazil. Whether they can deal with Messi is another matter.
Argentina’s defense was seen as its main weakness going into the World Cup, but the team has now gone 330 minutes without conceding a goal in the knockout rounds — including two extra time periods. The back four, which includes Manchester City duo Pablo Zabaleta and Martin Demichelis, made Dutch strikers Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie look plain ordinary.
This is Germany’s biggest strength, a unit without weakness that plays together as a well-oiled machine. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira shore things up defensively while Toni Kroos and Mesut Ozil direct most of the attacks going forward. Germany’s ruthless display against Brazil was orchestrated by the clinical efficiency of its midfield, and a similar display on Sunday might just be too much for Argentina to handle as well.
The Argentines, meanwhile, are hoping that Angel Di Maria will recover from a thigh injury to play in the final. Di Maria’s pace and ability to take on defenders on the wing was sorely missed against the Netherlands, when his team struggled to find ways forward. Defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano was one of the best players on the pitch against the Netherlands and is the key to keeping Germany in check.
Germany has the highest-scoring player in World Cup history in Miroslav Klose. But Argentina has Messi, and two other top forwards to boot. While Messi hasn’t scored in the three knockout games, his four goals in the group stage reminded everyone of why he’s a four-time world player of the year. Even with Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain in the team, Messi has always been the key to Argentina’s success — and never more so than in the biggest game of his career. For Argentina to have a chance, Messi will have to create goals — either for himself or for his teammates.
Germany aren’t bad up front either: Klose netted his 16th career World Cup goal against Brazil, and his teammate Thomas Mueller already has 10 in just two tournaments.
Weary Dutch have no interest in 3rd place game
The Netherlands squad must stay at the World Cup when coach Louis van Gaal dearly wishes they could just go home. Next up? The game no one wants to play.
Faced with the prospect of the third-place game against host Brazil on Saturday after a disappointing semifinal loss to Argentina, Dutch coach Louis van Gaal has criticized the match as meaningless and “nothing whatsoever to do with sports.”
“I think that this match should never be played,” Van Gaal said after his team went out 4-2 in a penalty shootout following a 0-0 deadlock through 120 minutes against the Argentines. “I’ve been saying this for 10 years. But anyway, we will just have to play that match.”
The Dutch somehow have to lift themselves one last time at the World Cup. Tired and bitterly disappointed, it won’t be easy.
“They can keep it.” Netherlands forward Arjen Robben replied dismissively to a question on how he felt about playing for third. “Only one prize counts and that is becoming world champion.”
Having lost the World Cup final four years ago, the Netherlands attitude is understandable. And although Van Gaal has been campaigning for a decade to get the game scrapped, the Dutch must honor the commitment.
But while the Netherlands players aren’t really interested, the Brazil squad sees the game as an immediate opportunity for redemption following a 7-1 humiliation by Germany in the semifinals. That has left one team much more determined to play this match than the other.
“Life goes on, we need to look forward to our next goal, and our next goal is to win the match for third place,” Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said. “We have to play it. It has become our main goal.”
Far from a main goal, it’s an irritation for the Netherlands.
Van Gaal said there were a number of things he didn’t like about the match, but the one that really grated with him is that a team faces the possibility of going home off back-to-back losses after doing so well and making the last four of a World Cup. The Brazilians have also had an extra day of rest after their semifinal on Tuesday.
“So that’s not fair play either,” Van Gaal said. “But the worst thing is, I believe, that chances are that you lose twice in a row. A tournament where you’ve played so marvelously well, that you go home as a loser just because you could possibly lose the last two matches. So, this has got nothing whatsoever to do with sports, not in my view.”