World Cup Final
Argentina and Germany compete in the World Cup Final. Reuters

After 63 matches in 31 days, it all comes down to this: Germany and Argentina, two of the most storied countries in World Cup history going toe-to-toe for the right to be champions of the world for the next four years. As much as the meeting between countries with five World Cups between them arouses memories of their great teams of the past, there will be plenty of talent on show in the Maraana on Sunday to make it an intriguing battle on its own merits. Here’s how the two teams could shape up and match up, with those players highlighted the ones who could be key to determining the outcome of what should be a closely fought contest.

Manuel Neuer
has further enhanced his reputation in this World Cup as the best goalkeeper in the world. As well as coming up with big-time saves, despite having little to do much of the time, he has got his team’s high defensive line out of trouble on a number of occasion, especially against Algeria, by playing the role of sweeper-keeper superbly. That skill may be needed in the final, with plenty of pace in the Argentina attack to run in behind.

Sergio Romero had major doubts about his ability coming into the tournament, having spent almost the entirety of last season on the bench at Monaco. He has generally performed admirably in Brazil, however, and was the hero with two penalty saves against the Netherlands. Perhaps his biggest weakness, though, is on crosses and that could be tested against a Germany side that has the size to pose a real aerial threat and has scored five goals from set-pieces during this World Cup.

Both defenses have improved as the tournament has progressed. For Argentina, Martin Demichelis, a surprise inclusion in the squad, has excelled since replacing the suspect Federico Fernandez and taking his place alongside the consistently impressive Ezequiel Garay. Pablo Zabaleta has also improved after a shaky start. It has been a similar situation for Germany, where the move of Philipp Lahm to right-back has allowed the more athletic Jerome Boateng to replace Per Mertesacker and partner Mats Hummels, who was outstanding in the quarterfinal and semifinal. Germany’s defense may have more quality, but neither is infallible. The right side of Argentina’s back line could be vulnerable, although going up against Mesut Özil, shouldn’t face a direct threat. At the other end, Argentina will surely look to target Germany’s left side, where Bendikt Höwedes can be exploited as an out-of-position full-back.

This zone will be crucial, with each coach trying to find the right balance. Germany appear to have got it correct in the last two games, with Bastian Schweinsteiger holding, allowing the dynamic and physical Sami Khedira and quality playmaker Toni Kroos to go forward. But all three will be required to adopt more defensively responsible roles to guard against the threat of Lionel Messi in between the lines.

Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella has also come across a better functioning midfield during the course of the competition. Enzo Pérez’s inclusion on the right has added solidity, although he is considerably less than dynamic than the man whose injury afforded him an opportunity, Angel di María. If Di María is fit, he could well now take the place of the similarly attack-minded Ezequiel Lavezzi on the other flank. In the middle Lucas Biglia has replaced the underperforming Fernando Gago and, while not possessing the same incisive passing, has brought more defensive acumen. And alongside him, Javier Mascherano has been truly outstanding. Germany’s greater quality on the ball will be expected to allow them to be on the front foot for much of the encounter, with Argentina trying to frustrate and looking for some moments of brilliance further forward…

Sabella faces his biggest conundrum over whether to start Sergio Agüero. The striker returned from a hamstring strain off the bench in the semifinals, but as earlier in the tournament, was again far from sharp. In qualifying Agüero’s relationship with Messi was mouth-watering, but his return to the side now would be a huge gamble, especially as it would disturb the recently come upon cohesion. Gonzalo Higuaín has looked livelier in the past two games and his movement and pace could trouble Germany’s back line.

And then there is Messi. The Barcelona star has been the target of focused attention from opposition teams in almost every game, yet he still provided decisive moments in the first five matches. It was only in the semifinals against the Netherlands where he was crowded out and marshaled to such a degree that he had no space in which to maneuver. Against a more proactive Germany, he is likely to have more space with which to exploit. Even if his team is under siege for almost the entire contest, Messi can change the game in an instant if he finds space behind the midfield to run at the defense and either go for goal himself or slip in a teammate.

Having taken just one orthodox striker to Brazil, it was thought that Low would rarely be deploying one at all in the tournament. As it has turned out, that one striker, 36-year-old Miroslav Klose has become the all-time leading scorer in World Cups and now looks set to start his third game in succession in the final. While he has not been spectacular since coming into the starting lineup, he offers Germany a focal point to occupy opposition defenders and allow the movement of those behind him to flourish. To his right, Thomas Müller has continued his phenomenal habit of popping up at the right place at the right time and finishing ruthlessly. Özil’s performances have been less convincing in a left-sided role that certainly is not his favored. But the fact that they can replace him with Mario Götze is an illustration of the depth in quality that may be decisive in seeing Germany triumph.

Probable Lineups

G: Romero

D: Zabaleta, Demichelis, Garay, Rojo

M: Biglia, Mascherano

Pérez, Messi, Di María

F: Higuaín

G: Neuer

D: Lahm, Boateng, Hummels, Höwedes

M: Schweinsteiger

Khedira, Kroos

F: Müller, Klose, Özil