Germany vs. Argentina: two questions that will determine World Cup final
Germany plays Argentina Sunday in the 2014 World Cup final in Brazil. Who will win could depend on Germany's mood and Argentina's Plan B.
The 2014 World Cup final Sunday afternoon in Rio de Janeiro really boils down to two questions:
We've caught hints as to the potential answer for the first question. We have no clue about the second because, to this point in the 2014 World Cup, it hasn't happened yet.
Tuesday's 7-1 win over Brazil offers some idea of what happens when Germany is allowed to play the way it wants to. "Wholesale destruction" would be an apt term here. Richard Wagner needed 15 hours, a bunch of trundling opera singers, and 10 anvil players to bring about the end of the world in his Ring Cycle. The German national soccer team needed about 29 minutes in Belo Horizonte Tuesday.
The Germans are an attacking force without equal in world soccer. Either they play without a single forward, meaning that virtually everyone on the front half of the field is trying to score, or they put on forward Miroslav Klose, the leading goalscorer in World Cup history, and simply ram it down your throats.
But don't expect Argentina to play along. Without anyone really noticing, Argentina has morphed into Italy during this World Cup. Coming in with such a wealth of attacking talent, including world-best Lionel Messi, Argentina was thought to be one of the teams to watch in Brazil – free-flowing and full of goals. Instead, it has adopted the Italian approach: If the other team doesn't score, we can't lose.
Many people argue Argentina's most important player in this World Cup has not been Messi, but Javier Mascherano, a junkyard dog in soccer cleats. A team whose offensive players are far more talented that its defensive ones has been turned into a lunch pail bunch, defending in numbers and hoping Messi can, at some point, conjure a goal from nothing.
Several times, he has. But in the semifinal game, the Netherlands recognized this, double-teaming Messi every time he touched the ball. The result was one of the most boring games of the entire tournament. Argentina did not commit enough other players forward to break down the Dutch defense, and Argentina had to rely on penalty kicks after the game ended 0-0.
Will Germany be willing to play like the Dutch did? Can this German team play boring? Well, it failed stupendously against Ghana in the opening round of the World Cup. Rather than sitting back against team that has trouble breaking down well-organized defenses, Germany played like it wanted to, trying to score every time down the field. The result? A wonderfully entertaining 2-2 draw that could have gone either way.
Three games later, however, the Germans made a personnel change and appeared to set things right. In the quarterfinals against France, Germany took an early lead and then suffocated the game. Final, 1-0.
To win, it seems, the most exciting team in this World Cup will have to commit itself to boring soccer.
Earlier this week, things went perfectly according to plan for Argentina. When Argentina played the Netherlands in the semifinal, it must have felt like looking in a mirror. The Dutch, like the Argentinians, played defensively. And the Dutch, like the Argentinians, only had one player of enough quality to break down such resistance, Arjen Robben. When the Argentinians double-teamed him out of the game, no one else stepped up.
That will not happen against Germany.
In short, there is no single person to double-team against Germany. Arguably Germany's most influential player, Thomas Müller, is also one of its most unselfish and is masterful in his movement. If the Argentinians try to double-team him, he will move to spots on the field that create vulnerabilities elsewhere, and the quality of the German team is such that Argentina will surely be made to pay.
That raises the intriguing question: What will Argentina do if it goes down a goal? Argentina has yet to trail for a single minute of this World Cup, so it is impossible to know the answer with any certainty. Will it continue to play as it has all along – defending at all costs and hoping for a Messi Hail Mary? Or will they it the training wheels off all that offensive talent?
Perhaps, for the first time this World Cup, we'll see the real Sergio Agüero or Gonzalo Higuaín. Perhaps Argentina will at last offer that brand of exhilarating soccer that had been so anticipated before the World Cup began.
Or perhaps they'll lose 7-1.