Sunday, July 13, 2014

WorldCup Final Preview: Best of Europe Vs. Best of South America

WSJ-  After four years and hundreds of qualification matches—plus 63 games of some import here in Brazil—it will come to this: Germany vs. Argentina, the best of Europe against the best of South America, playing the World Cup final in a continent where a European team has never won.
It's the world's best national team against the planet's best player, a three-time champion against a two-time winner.
So who is going to win?
It's nearly impossible to make an argument against Germany, especially after the Germans pummeled host Brazil into submission Tuesday in the semifinal. They have scored 17 goals in six matches, five more than any other team. They score once every 34 minutes, a rate that is double the average at this tournament. They score one goal for every 5.2 attempts on the net. The average for teams here has been one goal every 9.8 attempts.
Argentina's Lionel Messi Getty Images
In Miroslav Klose, the Germans have the all-time leading scorer at the World Cup. He is supposed to be over the hill at 36 years old. Instead he has two goals in four matches and seems as dangerous as ever.
What makes the Germans particularly frightening is that other than a 15- minute stretch against Ghana in the second group game, when they lost a lead and had to scramble for a draw, they have shown they can win playing whatever style they want.
Plan A with the Germans is to press relentlessly and attack. When they give up the ball they try to win it back within the first four seconds, then counter at warp speed, with their fullbacks like Philipp Lahm, sprinting forward to overwhelm the opponent. 
Then comes a game like the quarterfinal with France, one of the most anticipated matches of the tournament. It featured two of the fastest, most aggressive teams in Brazil.
The Germans played that one the old fashioned way, which is to say they got a goal in the 13th minute, set up two, perfectly organized defensive lines in the middle of the field, and barely allowed France to get any offense going for the rest of the afternoon.
Germany's players celebrate their team's victory at the end of the semifinal football match between Brazil and Germany. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
After surviving a semifinal shootout with the Netherlands on Wednesday, Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella said Germany was one of two soccer nations that he had "great admiration" for. (The other is Brazil, or at least it was.)
"Germany has always shown physical might, tactical prowess and mental force," Sabella said. He added that the Germans also have always had homegrown players with what he called a "South American touch," meaning a creative flair which is not always associated with European players. The combination is now proving especially lethal. "This is a first-world country that knows what it is to work in the medium and long-term. "They know what team work is. They know what organization is."
The Germans have also had an extra day's rest, or even more than that considering that their semifinal was pretty much decided after half an hour and was probably the least taxing game the Germans have played here.
About the only thing that might be able to stop the Germans would probably be some otherworldly, individual talent who can take over a game by himself. Conveniently enough, Argentina has just the man— Lionel Messi.
"Nobody should feel invincible," Germany coach Joachim Löw said after the Brazil rout. "Argentina has very strong defenders, and they've got players like Messi and Gonzalo Higuaín who are great on the attack."
Messi, the diminutive striker, has become something of a field general for Argentina. He collects the ball at midfield and leads the charge, rather than lurking at the tip of the attack and waiting to be fed balls in a spot where he can score, as he often does for his club team, Barcelona. Yet he still has four goals and an assist in the tournament.
When he has the ball at his feet it usually takes two, and sometimes three players to get it away from him. And when Messi gets that kind of pressure, no one in world soccer is better than delivering the ball to teammates like Higuaín or midfielder Enzo Pérez, who has been terrific filling in for the injured Ángel Di María.
"He's like water in the desert," Sabella said of Messi after Argentina's quarterfinal win over Belgium.
Whether Messi alone can will his team past Germany the way Diego Maradona did against West Germany in 1986 in Mexico City will go a long way toward deciding Sunday's game. Heading in, it seems more likely that the 1990 final in Rome, when West Germany's balance won out over Maradona and Argentina, is the more apt reference point. The Germans won that ill-tempered, drab final—a style Argentina may be forced to use this time.
The current German jerseys have three shades of red to symbolize each of the three championships it has won. If they play as they have in the rest of this tournament, they will need a fourth shade when they take the field in Russia in 2018.

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