World Cup Final Preview: Messi stands on the verge of becoming a legend

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It is the most repeated final in the history of the competition: two countries that have accumulated five titles and 12 finals between them. Contrasting styles that are atypical of those who have previously worn their respective colours. Only Alejandro Sabella’s Argentina side now stands in the way of a European nation calling out ‘bingo’ at a South American World Cup.

Germany would be worthy winners of what has been one of the best editions since the tournament began in 1930, but one man has hogged the headlines since Maxi Rodriguez’s penalty blasted the Albiceleste into this evening’s World Cup final at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã.

Lionel Messi is in search of his crowning glory. Helping Argentina to beat Germany would complete a unique treble for the little maestro; his glass cabinet would be incomparable, boasting a World Cup winners’ medal alongside his European Cup and Olympic Gold accolades. Never mind the four Ballon d’Ors.

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But this is not the same Messi of the past few seasons for Barcelona. The striker’s father has claimed the responsibility of carrying his nation’s hopes has left his son’s legs weighing 100 kilograms. Add the 200 million Germany-supporting Brazilians to those ankle weights.

For all the exhaustive comparisons with Diego Maradona, la Pulga has endured a World Cup of moments, failing to reach the ethereal heights of the man he seeks to emulate tonight. The 27-year-old has looked more akin to the Maradona of Italia 90 than that of Mexico 86, a mere earthling with lazy tendencies offering flickering sparks of immortality to an Argentina side that has upset the stereotype.

That the two-time champions have reached the final is largely down to their defensive displays, conceding only three goals – fewer than any other nation. For a third star to be added to their famous striped jersey, Argentina will be as dependent upon Javier Mascherano’s barricade as Messi’s brilliance.

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Bastian Schweinsteiger has described Mascherano as the leader of a wolf pack, with the likes of Pablo Zabaleta and Ezequiel Garay howling while the many attacking options that drew envious glances from opposing managers pre-tournament have appeared muzzled.

Some might argue that as talisman, Messi has had to sacrifice his own game somewhat in order for the collective to prosper where Portugal failed in building the side around Cristiano Ronaldo. But for him to be enthroned alongside Maradona and Pele as one of the greatest ever to grace the sport, it is he who must star in delivering the crucial blow to the side described by Michael Calvin as the new All Blacks.

We await which version of Messi performs in Brazil’s back yard, but Germany would be well advised to stick to their own game plan. To focus on shackling their opponent’s star player would be to play into Argentina’s hands, in the same way that befell Switzerland, Belgium and Holland in the knockout stages.

Muscle concerns to Angel Di Maria and Sergio Agüero have heaped extra pressure on Gonzalo Higuain to lead the line, and on Ezequiel Lavezzi and Rodrigo Palacio to play out of their skin. There are no such limitations to Joachim Löw’s wealth of options.

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The loss of Marco Reus prior to a ball being kicked in Brazil has hardly been felt, with Miroslav Klose – the sole survivor from the last time Germany disputed a World Cup final – emerging as a viable alternative to Thomas Müller’s role as ‘false number 9’ for Die Mannschaft.

The open nature of this year’s tournament has favoured sides that have adapted its playing style. Spain’s faith in tiki-taka served them well in South Africa, but not here. They stood still, sticking to their death by asphyxiation approach when the likes of the Netherlands and Chile came out wielding axes.

In being made to sweat by Ghana and then Algeria, Löw acknowledged the need to alter his line-up, inserting Schweinsteiger alongside Sami Khedira in the middle and reverting Phillip Lahm to right back. Klose replaced Mario Götze, allowing Müller to be more devastating from a deeper role.

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In not being satisfied even in victory, Germany – the serial tournament contenders who have blossomed under the Bundesliga boom of recent years – would now appear to have found a formula of winning in a style that is befitting of world champions.

Despite Rio being taken over by an army of Argentines in their VW camper vans, the tag as favourites and the huge swathes of blue and white-clad fans in attendance, Germany will emerge from the tunnel unnerved and relishing the hostilities as they had done in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday night. Not even Messi at his most mesmerizing might thwart the German juggernaut.

Brazil v Germany Preview: Nations Gripped For Titanic Clash in Belo Horizonte

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Brazil face Germany later this evening in Belo Horizonte, with only one of these super-power footballing nations set to contest the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro this Sunday. It is an occasion to transfix the aficionado, from the near-religious experience of the Brazilian national anthem to the delirium of one camp that will greet the final act.

These two football heavyweights have 19 World Cup finals between them and have won the trophy more times than any other country. Surprisingly, they have only faced each once before in the final of 2002, when Brazil last won it. Twelve years on from Ronaldo’s redemption under the floodlit International Stadium in Yokohama, and the denizens of this nation engulfed by the beautiful game await their sixth triumph.

After overcoming Chile on penalties in the last 16, Brazil were the superior side against quarter-final opponents Colombia, but the momentum and increasing level of expectation among the deluge of support in the Copacabana fanzone has been tempered by the fracture of a vertebrate.

The question on most people’s lips is whether Brazil will cope with the loss of their fallen forward Neymar. The pin-up boy of the tournament had created 13 chances for his side in the five games leading up to the semi-finals, scoring four times.

Despite the Barcelona forward’s undoubted talent, substance has trumped style thus far in helping Brazil prevail to the final four. Hearts the size of dinner plates and not deft feet are the plat du jour. A shinned goal, rather than the culmination of an eye-catching move is the likelier means by which they might progress to a date with the demons of 1950 at the Maracanã.

The suspension of captain Thiago Silva has somewhat passed under the radar as a result of the outpouring of emotions towards Neymar, but in his replacement Dante, manager Felipe Scolari has a player who knows only too well about Germany’s strengths – the defender plays for Bayern Munich, the same Bundesliga side as many of his opponents.

Brazil, determined to defend their 42-game unbeaten record on home soil, which has stood since a 1-0 reverse to Paraguay in a friendly in 2002, are not alien to losing a star performer in a major tournament. In Chile 1962, Pele was ruled out in the second game, but this galvanized rather than derailed the Brazilians, as they won the World Cup for a second time.

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A similar buccaneer approach, personified by the ubiquitous David Luiz wigs, now follows the selecção on every journey, the fear of protest replaced with national pride. Few in Brazil expect the side to defeat Joachim Löw’s side, but that is precisely what Scolari is demanding of his troops.

It is high time for one of Fred, Jo and Hulk to step out of the shadows. The trio has mustered one goal between them in the tournament thus far, and it awaits to be seen whether Scolari is willing to instill his faith in any of them against a defence fortified by the presence of the tournament’s stand-out goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer.

But Germany themselves have looked somewhat goal-shy in the knockout stages, needing a set-piece to overcome France, and only breaking down Algeria in extra-time the previous round. Thomas Muller is the side’s leading scorer with four goals, but he is yet to score in the knockout stages.

Miroslav Klose is set to make his 22nd World Cup appearance – the same number as Paulo Maldini and two shy of Lothar Matthäus’ record – but for all the 36-year-old’s goal-poaching instincts, he lacks the mobility that is likely to elevate him to the outright all-time top goal scorer at the finals (16).

A further cause for optimism for the host nation is the return from suspension of Luiz Gustavo. The Wolfsburg defensive midfielder has recorded a pass completion percentage of 90%, made 2.49 tackles and 4.31 interceptions per game – far better figures than Tottenham’s Paulinho. The 26-year-old has also created five chances, which is as many as Paulinho and Manchester City’s Fernandinho combined.

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With Gustavo reinstated, expect a bruising encounter. Brazil have committed more fouls than any other side left in the tournament (96) and are likely to add to their 10 yellows cards in an attempt to disrupt Germany’s midfield engine.

Their European counterparts have only trailed for eight minutes at the tournament so far, and should the game be decided from 12 yards after 120 minutes, few would back against them prevailing having won in each of the four World Cup penalty shoot-outs they have contested.

While Brazil will be forced into making changes, Löw has a few more options at his disposal. The manager opted to drop Per Mertesacker in the quarter-final against France, feeling that a high-line and the Arsenal defender’s lack of pace would suit the French’s counter-attacking style. With Fred not as mobile as Benzema, it will be interesting to see whether Mertesacker is restored to the defence that may have to contain the physical presence of Hulk.

Germany, like Brazil, are well-equipped in the midfield department, and may choose to operate captain Phillip Lahm from his more familiar full-back berth in order to compensate for both Sebastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira as the double pivot so few teams have successfully deployed in this tournament. The success is down to the interchangeability and athleticism of its components, and Brazil have similarly flourished through the same system while the likes of Spain and England have lacked the necessary pace to make it work.

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This generation of German players is reaching the peak of its cycle, with the squad’s average age of 26.31 – two years younger than the hosts – but, otherwise, there is symmetry in the make-up of the two teams. Both are spearheaded by harriers in Klose and Fred, and have exceptional players in the likes of Oscar and Mesut Ozil, who are yet to ignite out in Brazil.

Expect a cauldron of noise from the stands of the Estádio Mineirão to be greeted by nerves tonight; it will be the side with the greater nous that shall march on to Rio.