Brazil 2014: Final – Argentina vs. Germany – preview

What happens if penalties can't separate 'em? The silly hat battle commences.(the-news-daily.com)

What happens if penalties can’t separate ’em? The silly hat battle commences.(the-news-daily.com)

Seems whenever Argentina finds a guy who might be the best player in the world, Germany pops up to mess with his destiny. Austin Fido previews Messi vs. Mannschaft…

So it all comes down to this: the most common pairing in World Cup final history – Argentina vs. Germany.

It will be the third time these particular teams have met in the final of this particular tournament, unless you really want to make a case for the West Germany of 1986 and 1990 being a fundamentally different nation from Germany of 2014 (have at it – look forward to seeing what you have to say in the comments).

The next most common match-up, incidentally, is Brazil vs. Italy, but it lacks the poise of Argentina vs. Germany because Brazil won those games. The Albiceleste-Nationalmannschaft series, on the other hand, is currently locked at one World Cup final win apiece: Argentina won in ’86, because Maradona, and lost in 1990 because there were hardly any Argentines left to play the last match of the tournament other than Maradona (the team had four players suspended for the final and two sent off during the match).

Those two prior finals offer conflicting evidence with regard the outcome of the third. In 1986, Argentina had the best player in the world – Diego Maradona – playing extraordinarily well, surrounded by some damn good support. The Germans stayed in the game through a combination of hacking Maradona down and set pieces, but the winning goal was still set up by the best player on the field.

Reported to be Arjen Robben's favorite World Cup picture (bundesligaclassic.tumblr.com)

Allegedly, Arjen Robben’s favorite World Cup picture (bundesligaclassic.tumblr.com)

In 1990, it was a different Argentina: one essentially clinging to Maradona’s ability as the lifeline to drag the team through the tournament. He wasn’t at his best. Even if he had been, it is doubtful it would have made a great deal of difference: Germany was the better team. The match was close (1-0) but that had more to do with Germany not putting away its chances; Argentina had just one shot on goal.

So you could say that having the best player in the world makes all the difference, as in 1986; or you could say it’s about the better team, as in 1990.

Or you might conclude it has always been Germany’s day when these teams meet in a World Cup, since they figured out how to best Argentina in 1990.

The head-to-head history since 1990 has been oddly bifurcated: Argentina dominates non-World Cup fixtures; Germany wins when it counts most.

La Albiceleste won friendlies in 1993 and 2002, drew twice in 2005 including a Confederations Cup group stage match, and won again in 2010 and 2012. But in the 2006 World Cup, Germany snuck through their quarterfinal match on penalties, and in 2010, Maradona’s bizarre managerial ideas were shredded 4-0 in another quarterfinal meeting.

History isn’t much help: Argentina has lost just once to Germany in the last 21 years, but Germany hasn’t lost to Argentina at a World Cup since 1986.

These teams are not unfamiliar with each other (soccerladuma.co.za)

These teams are not unfamiliar with each other (soccerladuma.co.za)

2 pm (Chicago time) Argentina vs. Germany

240px-Afa_logo.svg200px-DFBEagle.svg

In 2014, most have Germany down as the better team. Beating the host nation, especially when it is Brazil, 7-1 in a World Cup semifinal will usually attract positive reviews for your work.

The core of this German side is a generation of players – Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Howedes, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil – who started, and won, the 2009 U21 European Championship final. Their opponents that day, England, sent one player from that U21 starting eleven to Brazil: James Milner.

Six future World Cup finalists and Fabian Johnson. (conti-online.com)

Six future World Cup finalists and Fabian Johnson. (conti-online.com)

Milner is watching this final from home or holiday; the other six guys in the preceding paragraph are expected to start against Argentina. And four of them started the 2010 semifinal against Spain.

There is a strong veteran presence in the team also: five of the ten most-capped players in the history of German football are in this squad, and two of them will almost certainly start (Phillipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger), with Miroslav Klose merely a probable starter.

Throw in the strong club connections running through the squad – seven players from Bayern Munich, four currently at Borussia Dortmund, there is even a trio from Arsenal (yes, even when the money starts to pull German players out of the Bundesliga, they somehow have a knack for ending up on the same training ground) – and what you have is a group well used to its own company.

This familiarity reached something of a high point against Brazil: confident passing, impeccable decision-making, crisp execution of the routines and rhythms designed to create space.

They even know their opponents better than you might expect (gettyimages.com)

They even know their opponents better than you might expect (gettyimages.com)

It is ironic this may be the way Lionel Messi is denied his perhaps best-ever shot at lifting the World Cup. Great as his talent may be, Messi is arguably the greatest product of a system of play anyone has ever seen.

Among his contemporaries, Cristiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic can claim to be greater individual players: both have put themselves at the center of quite different teams (several, in Zlatan’s case) and repeated their success, even surpassed it, as they moved from club to club.

Messi has stayed with the club that made his name, Barcelona, and has spent most of his career surrounded by equally exceptional exponents of the team’s style: Xavi Hernandez and Andre Iniesta. He is an extraordinary player – no question – but he is at his best in a particular system.

A system which Argentina is not equipped to replicate. If Messi were playing for Germany, we’d be throwing around words like “prohibitive” to describe their chance of winning.

Nice idea, Leo, but I think they'll just knock you over to make you stop. (foxsportsasia.com)

Nice idea, Leo, but I think they’ll just knock you over to make you stop. (foxsportsasia.com)

It feels as though the Germans have peaked at exactly the right time. Brazil was unexpectedly fragile; it would be a huge surprise if we see La Albiceleste mannschafted quite as vigorously. But it was clear, at least in the second half, Germany was holding a little back: it simply wasn’t necessary push to the limit with a five goal lead and a distraught opponent.

Throw in one more day to prepare than Argentina got, and the fact La Albiceleste went all the way to penalties against the Dutch, and Germany has a considerable edge: not just apparently the better team, also the better rested team.

Yes, Javier Mascherano has been a standout player of this tournament, much more important to Argentina’s semifinal win (or at least the part where it did not lose) than Messi. Certainly, Gonzalo Higuain, Enzo Perez, Sergio Aguero and Ezequiel Lavezzi can trouble the German back line, with or without their captain’s help. If Angel Di Maria is even a little bit fit, he too is as great an attacking threat as any player assumed to likely to appear in this final.

Dammit, Lavezzi - I was just saying how good you were. (vustudents.ning.com)

Dammit, Lavezzi – I was just saying you are good. (vustudents.ning.com)

It is plausible to argue these teams haven’t been too different as they made their respective ways to the final. Germany thrashed a depleted Portugal in its opening game; Argentina might easily have done the same to Bosnia-Herzegovina with a man advantage, but took a straightforward win against eleven men nonetheless.

Coincidentally, both teams have struggled most against (three quite different) African sides: Nigeria put a scare into Argentina in the group stage, before fading; Germany couldn’t handle Ghana, scraping a draw, and had more trouble than expected downing Algeria.

Most of the rest of the tournament has been narrow wins: 1-0 over Iran, Switzerland and Belgium for La Albiceleste; 1-0 over USA and France for Germany.

Ultimately, the Germans are cast as favorites because they decimated Brazil, whereas Argentina only contained Arjen Robben and the Dutch. And the Netherlands have merely been the best at keeping Lionel Messi quiet so far in this tournament – every team has played La Albiceleste with the same priority, and most have managed to do so for longer than expected.

Doesn't matter who you are: if you have an arm or a shirt, you can be slowed down. (sports.ndtv.com)

Doesn’t matter who you are: if you have an arm or a shirt, you can be slowed down. (sports.ndtv.com)

The Nationalmannschaft produced its best performance against what had been thought to be its best opponent to date – and clearly held a little something back for the final. Argentina was very nearly undone by the Dutch, having done just enough to get by in the earlier knockout matches.

Di Maria is trying to limp into the lineup; Mascherano is telling everyone that his suspected concussion isn’t close to the worst injury he suffered in the semifinal. Even Argentina is happy to say Argentina is the underdog.

The only apparent injury concern in the German camp (other than reserve defender Shkodran Mustafi) is Mats Hummels, not an insignificant casualty but not as big a loss to his team as Di Maria is, and Mascherano would be, to Argentina.

So the team with the best player is likely to finish second-best. If it can get the crowd behind it (Neymar has already said he’s taking current club teammates over old regional rivalry), and Messi finds Germany’s back line in the state of mild anxiety it was in against Ghana…well, of course Argentina has a chance: Argentina has Messi.

Unfortunately for the best Argentine footballer since the last time his country won the World Cup, it feels very much as though Germany has the playing style and players better suited to facilitating his talent, as well as neutralizing it.

Yep, it's time for your quadrennial besting of Argentina, Miroslav. (sports.inquirer.net)

Yep, it’s time for your quadrennial besting of Argentina, Miroslav. (sports.inquirer.net)

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Austin Fido is OTF’s USMNT and CONCACAF editor. Follow him @canetop.

 

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