Germany, Argentina rekindle fond memories for World Cup title
JUL 11, 2014 7:10p ET
It may seem reductive to put this game down to Lionel Messi versus the German attacking machine. Yet this is what the match comes down to: A showdown between individual brilliance and mechanical teamwork. Germany will have to stifle a man who is not only the best player of his generation, but a man who is on the cusp of proving himself as the best player of all-time. The flip side of this is that Argentina -- who have employed deeply conservative tactics throughout this World Cup -- tend to smother games when teams clamp down on their playmaker. And that may turn this match into something no one really wants: A grim battle of attrition.
Both sides have been here before. In fact, the last time either of these footballing greats won a World Cup was against the other, back in their glory days. The late 1980s and early 1990s were vintage years for these two juggernauts, with the rippling power of Diego Maradona pushing Argentina to triumph in 1986 and the dizzying grace of Jurgen Klinsmann powering the German side of 1990 directly to the World Cup title.
In 1986's final, Maradona actually set up the winning goal against Franz Beckenbauer's men, threading the ball to Jorge Burruchaga, who then fired home under Harold Schumacher to win the match 3-2. What is forgotten by many outside of Argentina is that the Albicelestes had taken a commanding 2-0 lead, only to fritter it away. If not for Maradona's sublime pass -- breaking a stifling German press in the 84th minute -- Argentina might well have lost that match.
The rematch came four years later, and both sides had learned their lessons. The Germans, who had just seen the Berlin Wall fall and were playing their final game as "West Germany," again put the wraps on Maradona and got the win thanks to a controversial sending off -- the first ever in a final -- and an equally controversial penalty kick call later. Klinsmann was the man fouled, and Pedro Monzon was the man sent off. Monzon bitterly contested the red, claiming that Klinsmann had dived -- and given his reputation at the time, many believed the Argentine. As the game degenerated into a dirge, Rudi Voller was weakly fouled by Roberto Sensini late, and referee Edgardo Codesal pointed to the spot. Andreas Brehme scored, another Argentine player was sent off in the ensuing chaos, and a pattern was set: Not since then has either team tasted glory.
Expect a similar game plan this time out. Germany will look to use Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos to compress Messi, and attempt to keep him from attacking Germany's weak link Benedikt Howedes. The Argentines will, in turn, attempt to use Javier Mascherano and Enzo Perez, subbing for the still-questionable Angel di Maria to simply disrupt the German's passing game, gambling that if they can have a bit of the ball, it doesn't necessarily matter what they do with it. Can Sami Khedira repeat his sublime show in Rio de Janeiro? We'll see. Khedire and Kroos have shown they must be shut down for teams to prosper against the Germans.
It's worth noting that Argentina have had problems scoring -- they have found the net only eight times in this World Cup compared to Germany's admittedly astonishing total of 17. Thomas Muller -- chasing the golden boot award -- and Miroslav Klose have both been astonishing this tournament, and Germany have never lost when Klose scores. But what Argentina does do well is keep opponents off the board, conceding a goal in the knockout stages and what looked like a vulnerable backline has proved to be surprisingly resilient.
Argentina also has the knack for blunting high-scoring sides. Recall that the Netherlands lit up defending champions Spain 5-1 earlier this World Cup, yet against Argentina, could not get off a single shot on goal during regulation. It is not an attractive style to play, but it is a winning formula.
For Germany to succeed, they must also press, and that opens them up to direct balls over the back. Joachim Low has learned that he cannot start the immobile Per Mertesacker if he wants to play that high line and that Ezequiel Lavezzi will have to be watched like a hawk. He doesn't always provide quality, but he does expand the field horizontally, and that sideline-to-sideline play can expose a team that likes to shrink the field vertically.
The question then comes back to Messi. The little maestro had two forgettable hours against the Dutch on Wednesday night. Messi had been under intense criticism in the run up to the tournament as a man who had not only not produced for his nation, but was overrated as he had never won a World Cup. He will be looking to answer those critics Sunday and few expect him to be as invisible.
The bottom line is that this game is unlikely to be a firefight. Argentina will try to slow the match down and take it into the mud. Whether they have enough left in the tank after their emotional penalty shootout win over the Netherlands is an open question. It is foolish to count out a South American team playing in a World Cup hosted in South America.
And there's one other matter: Argentina are Brazil's arch-rivals. How dearly would Argentina love to rub their neighbors noses in it.