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.

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