/ 10 July 2014

World Cup: It’s Messi vs The Machine

Lionel Messi will have to show off all his magical skill if he is to lead Argentina to a victory over Germany.
Lionel Messi will have to show off all his magical skill if he is to lead Argentina to a victory over Germany.

Deep into extra time at the 2010 World Cup final, Andrés Iniesta thumped a half-volley, with mundane finality, past Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg. The little Catalan ran, screaming, in celebration to the corner flag, where he was instantly buried under his teammates. The goal, with a faint hint of offside to it, crowned Spain, who had dominated the World Cup with their famed tika-taka football, world champions.

This Sunday, it’s Germany’s and Argentina’s turn to decide who wins world football’s most coveted prize: the 6.2kg, 18-carat gold World Cup trophy, to be lifted at the Maracanã. The game is a repeat of the 1990 World Cup final, in which Andreas Brehme scored the only goal from the penalty spot in the 85th minute for West Germany.

Some of this was expected. Germany were already a class act before the World Cup, but Die Nationalmannschaft, after humiliating hosts Brazil 7-1 in the semifinals earlier this week, have become the outright favourite to win their first world title since Brehme’s goal.

The Germans dethroned the spiritual owners of the game with a brand of energetic play, a peculiar mix of possession-based and lethal counterattacking football. The game’s story was one of Joachim Löw’s team playing dreamlike football, but also of Brazil’s many deficiencies. Germany annihilated the rudderless five-times World Champions with five goals in the first 29 minutes.

Sami Khedira, who recovered from a ligament injury in November, orchestrated Germany’s midfield, and Toni Kroos provided impetus and vision on the wing. They devastated Brazil’s feeble midfield. Thomas Müller scored the opening goal against Brazil, adding a fifth to his tally this tournament, but his trademark mobility hurt Brazil even more.

But there is no euphoria in the German camp.

“A bit of humility is in order now,” a collected Löw said in the post-match press conference. “After the Algeria game, they slaughtered us,” Bayern forward Müller said. “Now they want to elevate us to the heavens. That’s the wrong approach.”

Sensible approach
The Germans, sensibly, remained down to earth. In the round of 16, Algeria exposed Germany’s weakness at the back, where concentration sometimes seemed in short supply. Against France, Löw moved Philipp Lahm back to the right-back position and, from there, the German captain marshalled the defence.

In 2010, Germany finished third after succumbing to Carles Puyol’s strong header in the semifinal. They were also contenders at the European championships in 2008, but fell just short. So, Lahm and Co desperately want to avoid leaving Brazil empty-handed, otherwise this generation of German players will be considered perennial second-bests.

The Germany team is packed with disciplined, skilful players. (Getty)

Argentina, though, are outside contenders in the final and will only be worthy world champions if they can beat Germany.

So far, La Albiceleste have failed to truly impress. They have not won one game by more than a one-goal margin. The semifinal was no different.

In a wretched game in São Paulo, Argentina edged a sputtering Netherlands on penalties after 120 minutes of risk-free football. Both teams kept each other at arm’s length and produced only half chances until Rodrigo Palacio’s header and Maxi Rodríguez’s shot threatened Dutch goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen deep into extra time.

Lacking inspiration
Lionel Messi, again, didn’t inspire against the Netherlands. In the opening exchanges he dropped deep to collect the ball in a ploy to draw out the Dutch defence and escape Nigel de Jong’s tough marking. More often, though, Messi looked immobile and was only peripherally involved. Instead, goalkeeper Sergio Romero salvaged Argentina, as Gonzalo Higuaín and Ángel di María had done against Belgium and Switzerland in the previous knockout games.

Messi, of course, carried Argentina through the group stages with four goals, but Gökhan Inler and Valon Behrami, two central defenders, double-marked Messi out of the second-round game with Switzerland. The Swiss device was to stop Argentina by stopping Messi. It nearly worked.

In the quarterfinal, Axel Witsel, Belgium’s deepest midfielder, stuck closest to Messi, leaving him enough space from which to engineer his team’s attacks. He slowed the pace before delivering defence-splitting passes.

The team is built around Messi but the question for Argentina’s coach, Alejandro Sabella, still seems to be how to get the best out of him.

The Netherlands contained Argentina’s captain. When De Jong strayed a little, other Dutch players guarded Messi closely. Louis van Gaal, the Dutch coach, wanted to suffocate the Barcelona player with a defensive mind-set.

Best player vs best team
The final on Sunday, then, pits the best team of the tournament against the best player in the World. Will Germany also become the best team in the world or will Messi, who has had a mixed tournament so far, impose himself with a champion’s performance?

Against Brazil, Kroos and Khedira scored three goals in the space of five minutes, demonstrating much of Germany’s vintage football. They pressed high. They cared in possession. They passed with precision and changed the pace in the blink of an eye.

Argentina may try to stifle their attack-minded opponents. Germany, similarly, will want to stifle Messi. Such a scenario would lead to a repeat of the low quality final in 1990.

If the teams want to avoid a turgid 90 minutes, the onus is on them to seize the initiative and win.