Both Argentina and Germany have looked unconvincing at times, and even flirted with disastrously early exits, but have improved as the World Cup has moved on. They now take their place in the final where they will have to get it right on Sunday.
Argentina began with all the talk about their incredible attack, featuring Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and Ángel di María, but by the end it was a new-found defensive solidity that secured a first final in 24 years. At the start, coach Alejandro Sabella appeared wary of going all out, relying on his attacking talent to outscore the opposition. As it was, with much of the rest of the team misfiring and the defense looking shaky, it required magic from Messi in each group game to lead Argentina to three wins.
In the Round of 16, it was a similar story. A tense match with Switzerland was only settled in the 118th minute when Messi found space for the first time of the match, set up Di María and a quarterfinal spot was theirs. It was there where Argentina changed, seemingly for the worse but perhaps ultimately for the better. Having played a part in setting up Higuaín’s opening goal against Belgium eight minutes in, Di María was forced off with a thigh problem to join Agüero, who had strained his hamstring in the final group game, on the injury list. Argentina’s “Fantastic Four” was now down to two.
And that allowed Sabella to adopt a more pragmatic style with which, deep down, he was always more comfortable anyway. For the remainder of the match against Belgium and then in 120 minutes against the Netherlands, Argentina prevented the opposition from scoring and rarely looked like doing so. Clearly the team was not as explosive as was hoped coming into the tournament, but the balance was far better than it had been at the start.
Now comes the big selection dilemma for the former Estudiantes coach who spent three seasons playing in England for Sheffield United and Leeds United. Agüero was fit to come off the bench in the penalty shootout win in the semifinals -- although looked some way short of peak fitness, while Di María is working overdrive to recover in time for Sunday’s final at the Maracana. The return of the more versatile Di María would be a hugely welcome boost, but the introduction of Agüero from the start would disrupt the balance that has been found in his absence. The player to benefit from the injuries, Enzo Pérez, has added real stability on the right of midfield, alongside Lucas Biglia and the man who put in a herculean effort against the Netherlands, Javier Mascherano.
Germany coach Joachim Löw has a similar conundrum. For the past two years, Löw has been determined to turn Germany into a more proactive, possession-based side in the mold of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and now Bayern Munich. At times it worked brilliantly, as when annihilating Portugal 4-0 in its opening game with some majestic attacking play. But, like in the qualifiers when throwing away a 4-0 lead against Sweden, it has also left the team uneasily vulnerable at the back. Ghana exploited it for a draw in the group phase, while fellow African team Algeria nearly did likewise on a number of occasions in a thrilling second-round match that Germany eventually won 2-1 in extra time.
That proved too big a scare for Löw. In the quarterfinal against France, the player whose position came to symbolize the changing German approach, Philipp Lahm, was moved back to his traditional right-back slot from the midfield role he has occupied under Guardiola at Bayern Munich. In his place in the middle came the more physical, more dynamic, Sami Khedira.
In the quarterfinals, much as Argentina did, Germany won solidly but not spectacularly, against France.
Then came a semifinal that no one in Germany or indeed anyone who watched with disbelief across the world will ever forget. Germany exploited all the flaws of host Brazil in brilliant, thrilling, ruthless fashion to walk away with a startling 7-1 win.
Germany employed its midfield to destroy Brazil, but against an Argentina side featuring the talents of Messi, who thrives on space behind the midfield, Löw would be incredibly brave, some might say naïve, to try to do likewise. For both coaches there are decisions that could prove decisive in determining which country ends a generation-long drought for a World Cup trophy.
Germany were brilliant in disposing of Brazil, but it almost goes without saying that the final against Argentina will be a vastly different game. The Netherlands based its whole game plan around stopping Messi in the semifinal and, while it is difficult to imagine Germany doing likewise, the attacking instincts of Khedira, in particular, will surely have to be reined in. It will also be a massive test for Bastian Schweinsteiger. He has done well as the anchorman in the last two games, but it is not his natural position, and it will require a joint effort from all three midfielders. Meanwhile, Germany’s weak spot, Bendikt Howedes at left-back, will likely get a much more strenuous examination in the final. It was an area that Argentina targeted with some success against the Dutch, and Sabella will in all probability look to do likewise on Sunday.
But you would have to say that Germany have greater all-round quality in their side and certainly in their squad. A central square in defense and midfield of Ezequiel Garay, Martin Demichelis, Mascherano and Biglia were exceptional against the Dutch but will get a much sterner test against the impressive movement of Germany’s midfield and forwards. It should still be a tight game and, with Messi on the pitch, Argentina have more than a fighter’s chance of coming up with a win. Ultimately, though, having found the right formula to maximize the talent in their team, and with this generation now showing that they have the mental strength for the big occasion, Germany should end a 24-year wait to stitch a fourth star on their shirt.
Germany 2-1 Argentina
When and where: The 2014 World Cup final will kick off from the Estadio do Maracana at 3 p.m. EDT on Sunday.