This feels like the most appropriate final, in a tournament that might be the greatest ever for goals and excitement but turned out not to be for quality: the best team against (arguably) the best player. Argentina’s slow progress to the Maracana has been all about whether the opposition can stop Messi – that’s still a big question as they face Germany in Rio, but it’s not clear that the Germans will lose even if they let Messi run free.
Germany’s 7-1 win over Brazil is the most extraordinary in World Cup history, and it’s still hard to compute. Even that margin of victory, perhaps especially that margin of victory, doesn’t quite tell us how good the Germans are. The game was mostly about Brazil being bad.
No team on Earth should be able, for instance, to steal the ball five seconds after you’ve kicked off, then calmly sidefoot it home five seconds later. Argentina’s Marcos Rojo is unlikely to ape Brazilian left-back Marcelo and keep charging up the pitch to attack, no matter how many times Thomas Müller sprints in behind to set up attacks. Nor do the Albiceleste have a defender like David Luiz who can lose a game on his own when he’s on top form.
The scary flipside of that is this: Germany destroyed the hosts in half an hour without even using their top gear. They simply pressed the Brazilians hard in midfield, funnelled possession down the right (or straight down the middle as Brazil lost heart), and scored without having to expend much effort. Miroslav Klose scored his historic goal but was allowed two goes at it and was otherwise ineffective; Mesut Özil did very little and really ought to be replaced here by André Schürrle, who won the second half for Germany against a Brazil side that was patched up and much improved.
Germany are fresh, too. They played their semi on Tuesday and were cruising after 30 minutes. Argentina played on Wednesday and had to scrap for two hours plus penalties. At the end of a draining tournament, this gives the Germans a large advantage that the conditions in Rio – quite humid, not particularly hot – won’t cancel out.
Argentina’s approach is still: give it to Messi. As the tournament has gone on, they’ve not found another reliable route to goal. Instead they’ve kept either sneaking through narrowly with his help – Messi assisted their late goal against Switzerland, and half-assisted their rather streaky early goal against Belgium – or in the case of the deathly semi-final against Holland, have found that with Messi neutralised, they have nothing.
How good Messi has been at Brazil 2014 will be decided tonight, along with a large part of his lasting reputation. Has he been brilliant in the circumstances, triple-marked by most opponents and unable to rely on his team-mates to provide their own attacking spark? Or does he need to do much more to make this his tournament?
The good news for Messi is that Germany are unlikely to fear him enough to sacrifice their shape by surrounding him at all times. If he can outwit Bastian Schweinsteiger, or drift right and take on Germany’s weakest player, left-back Benedikt Höwedes, the ultimate glory could still be his.
Yet if Argentina are to win, the real star could be further back: as they sit deep to avoid German counter-attacks, and in the hope of releasing Gonzalo Higuain or Ezequiel Lavezzi behind the pushed-up German defence, midfield patroller Javier Mascherano will be a key man. Not just for his reading of the game and beautifully timed tackles, but for his will to win: against the Netherlands, he overcame a concussion and indeed a torn anus – sustained making a game-saving challenge in the box on Arjen Robben – to see his side through.
For Argentina to stop this potentially unstoppable German side, they need a hero or two.