RIO DE JANEIRO – The most entertaining World Cup in a generation comes down to a final match that pits the planet’s best player against the tournament’s best team.
Lionel Messi will lead Argentina out against Germany at Maracana Stadium today for a game that will define careers, cement legacies and be watched by a global audience of about a billion viewers.
For Messi, it’s a chance to firmly make his case for being perhaps the greatest ever to play the world’s most popular game. For Germany, it’s an opportunity to make up for a number of near-misses over the last decade and re-establish itself as the dominant force in international football.
And then there’s the matter of settling a historical score. Argentina and West Germany played each other in two straight World Cup finals in 1986 and ’90, games that are well remembered in the sports psyche of both countries. Diego Maradona and Argentina won the first, the Germans took the second. So call this game the tiebreaker.
“At this point who is favorite, who is not, it doesn’t make a difference,” Argentina midfielder Maxi Rodriguez said. “Both teams feel a responsibility to go all the way.”
Most would name Germany as the favorite, especially after its astounding 7-1 drubbing of host Brazil in the semifinals. Argentina only reached the final after eking out a penalty shootout win over the Netherlands following a 0-0 draw through 120 minutes.
Germany also dismantled Argentina 4-0 in the 2010 quarterfinals in South Africa.
“Germany is a great team. What happened to Brazil could happen to any team,” Argentina forward Sergio Aguero said. “(But) we have players who can create danger up front. We’re in the final for a reason.”
One thing speaks against Germany, too. No European team has ever won a World Cup played in the Americas.
“We are looking forward to playing a South American team in South America but we hope the Brazilian fans will be supporting us,” Germany assistant coach Hansi Flick said. “We know the Argentina team very well, we’ve played often against them. We know what to expect.”
The question is, what can Argentina expect from Messi?
The four-time world player of the year scored four goals in the three group games but is on a three-game scoring drought in the knockout stages.
For Germany, the equation is equally simple: If it can contain Argentina’s biggest threat, its superior strength in the rest of the field should make the difference. From goalkeeper to center forward, Germany is a team without a weakness.
With the exception of an erratic performance against Algeria in the second round, Germany has played like a perfect team machine.