1. Can Messi deliver a performance worthy of the World Cup final?
IT’S BEEN A strange though largely successful tournament for Lionel Messi.
Rarely has he dominated games in the manner he often does for Barcelona (partially because he is playing with inferior players of course), yet that hasn’t stopped him from making a decisive impact on the majority of matches in which he’s featured.
Yet it would be justifiable to suggest that, since the knockout stages, he has been quiet by his standards. Neither the Belgium or Switzerland matches featured vintage displays by the 27-year-old, though he did set up the winner in the latter and showed one or two glimpses of his genius in the former.
But against Holland in particular, he was ineffectual. He struggled to find space in a clustered midfield area and was well marshalled by Nigel de Jong in the first hour, while he looked exhausted by the end of the contest.
Messi may find more joy against Germany, particularly if he drifts to the flanks, where Joachim Löw’s side have at times looked weak defensively, particularly against Ghana.
However, much will depend both on Messi’s fitness at the end of a gruelling season, as well as how much of the ball he sees against a German side that has the capabilities to dominate possession and territory.
2. Clash of styles should prove fascinating
Most neutrals will agree that out of the two teams competing in today’s final, Germany have been the more attractive side to watch over the course of this tournament.
They are expected to play with a high defensive line encompassing intensive pressing and quick counter-attacking, whereas Argentina are almost the polar opposite, preferring to keep their back four deeper and consequently producing slower build-up play.
Alejandro Sabella, of course, is a notorious pragmatist, who is likely to consider the opposition’s strengths first and foremost, as was patently the case in the semi-final.
Therefore, it’s highly unlikely that Germany will run rampant as they did in the semi-final against Brazil. Instead, expect this game to be more akin to their quarter-final with France or indeed the Netherlands-Argentina semi, albeit with more talented players on the pitch, thereby hopefully providing a more entertaining spectacle for the neutral.
Accordingly, this encounter is likely to adopt the usual pattern that most of the knockout games have followed thus far, with one side winning by the odd goal or two, perhaps even after extra-time or penalties.
3. Midfield battle key
(Sami Khedira was highly influential in his side’s 7-1 victory over Brazil)
The two best players in an attacking sense for the two respective sides have been Lionel Messi and Thomas Müller, yet in this game, the middle battle will be equally or perhaps even more crucial than the influence of the teams’ forwards.
Germany’s Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger undoubtedly have more guile than Argentina’s Lucas Biglia and Javier Mascherano (especially when you factor in the added footballing eloquence of Toni Kroos), even if Mascherano does play for Barcelona, with his passing range and creativity somewhat underrated given the stars he is invariably compared to.
However, Argentina are arguably more solid defensively in the midfield. Schweinsteiger, in particular, can be vulnerable when pressurised, and this uncertainty is reflected by the fact that himself and Khedira haven’t always been first choice in that area of the park, with Philipp Lahm at one point operating in the position.
Hence, if Mascherano emulates the dogged and at times inspirational performance he produced in the semi, an upset could be on the cards.
That said, Argentina cannot afford to dwell on the ball as Fernandinho and Luis Gustavo did for Brazil in the semi — Germany have turned pressing into one of their main strengths over the past year or so and they were remarkably effective in forcing these two experienced midfielders into regular mistakes, as the hosts swiftly fell apart on Tuesday night.
4. Can the stubborn defences be breached?
Both these teams have defended very well for the most part during this tournament. Germany have conceded just four goals so far — two of which were relatively meaningless under the circumstances (Brazil’s sole goal in the 7-1 thrashing and Algeria’s last-minute consolation in the last 16 game).
Similarly, Argentina’s defence has looked more solid as the tournament’s progressed — indeed, they have yet to concede a goal in the knockout stages, partially thanks to the innately conservative approach of manager Sabella.
Yet neither side’s back four can be considered flawless by any means — Ghana showed that German left-back Benedikt Höwedes can struggle when targeted, while Argentina’s defence was considered as their main weakness going into the tournament.
Furthermore, Sabella is clearly nervous about the back four — they usually play extremely deep owing to a lack of pace, and they’re afforded consummate protection by the midfield and in particular Javier Mascherano.
Furthermore, Martin Demichelis is not averse to making the odd elementary error, as Manchester City fans will know, and against a top-class German attack that has looked particularly lethal of late, he is bound to be decidedly nervous.
5. Will Thomas Müller wrap up the Golden Ball?
(Thomas Müller has been one of Germany’s best players during this World Cup)
While Müller may not be as flashy or eye-catching as Neymar or Lionel Messi, he has arguably outshone both over the course of this tournament.
Five goals and three assists speaks for itself — and the Bayern Munich man has an uncanny ability to excel in particular during major tournaments. He was equally impressive in the 2010 World Cup, winning the Golden Boot and again, registering five goals and three assists.
Moreover, he played an integral role in Germany’s destruction of Brazil. Along with Sami Khedira and Philipp Lahm, he was key in making the most of the space in Brazil’s left-back area, with Marcelo showing a consistent, inexplicable tendency to go AWOL during German attacks down the right.
Therefore, Sporting left-back Marcos Rojo faces what is surely the biggest challenge of his career to date in attempting to alleviate the threat not just of Müller, but also Lahm, Khedira and even Özil (who tends to drift to the right hand side of the field sporadically). Unlike Marcelo however, Rojo is at least likely to be afforded ample protection from his teammates.
Nevertheless, a solid showing from Müller this evening may well be enough to ensure he goes home with the Golden Ball and more importantly, the World Cup trophy.