"The Argentinean player, if he has a virtue is this one: he gets bigger in the biggest challenges,” renowned coach Angel Cappa said on Radio Onda Cera this week.
Germany’s crushing 7-1 semi-final defeat of World Cup hosts Brazil will count for nothing unless they can see off the challenge of Leo Messi’s Argentina at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday.
With much of the world’s media still in shock following Tuesday’s game, which was a highly entertaining blend of Germany’s clinical dominance and Brazil’s pathetic capitulation, many are also now hinting that Alejandro Sabella’s men will just be making up the numbers.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This is going to be close, very close. But don’t take my word for it, Germany defender Mats Hummels is of a similar opinion.
The win over Brazil does not have any impact on the final because it will be a totally different game.
We know how hard it will be in the final. It will be a hard fight and the only chance of winning is if we know that and accept that from the start.
After the match (against Brazil) we made it clear that we have to stay focused and not get carried away with this. We have to stay serious and concentrate.
And focus is just what this German side has shown, but where they have come into their own is with clever use of a structured attack to go with what has always been an organised defence. Nobody else in this World Cup, with the possible exception of Chile, has shown such a complex collective nature.
It is not just coincidence that the team which lined up against Brazil contained no fewer than six Bayern Munich players. The German national side has made full use of a positional style of play started at Bayern by Louis van Gaal, given an offensive twist by Jupp Heynckes and developed further by Pep Guardiola.
With clever triangle play, fast counters and the killing of space in midfield, along with the full-backs and centre-backs building from the back, this German side has the Bayern Munich style of play indelibly engraved all over it.
But it’s taken a while and it hasn’t been all beer and bratwurst—either on or off the pitch—for a side that has also struggled against the likes of Ghana and Algeria before really getting into its rhythm.
Waiting in the wings is a side that haven’t—as many thought they would—set the tournament on fire, but still have the man generally regarded by most football lovers as the greatest player in the world: Messi.
However, it would have been hard to spot him as such in the semi-final against the Netherlands, when both sides contrived to put on a show that failed to create a clear-cut chance between them in the first 90 minutes. Arjen Robben got close, but Javier Mascherano stopped him.
Many have commented on Messi’s lack of dynamism, particularly in the last match. He hardly runs, he is not fast, he is not the same, he must be carrying an injury. All that has been said. There were even reports in Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo (via the Daily Telegraph) of his dad about how exhausted he is and his legs feeling like 100 kilos. All lies. His family vehemently deny having spoken to anybody about it.
The truth is, if you want to get the very best out of him, you need to get the ball to him quickly and open up spaces with movement off the ball. If the momentum slows, then so does Messi, and the only alternative you have then is for Messi—as he has so far—to come up with that one moment of match-winning brilliance that will make the difference.
He is playing too deep to benefit Gonzalo Higuain, in a system that has been varying from five at the back to a 4-3-3, both against Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Messi prefers two forwards in front of him to open up spaces and assist, but every injury (Sergio Aguero, Angel Di María) has allowed Alejandro Sabella to insist on a team that protects itself first.
Messi has to play next to the central midfielder to try counter-attacks. Not ideal for his style of football.
And if he is man-marked and has three other defenders to go through after beating the first, it's frustrating for him.
All that explains why Messi is not looking fast, or busy. But he is playing as he has been asked and that has taken him and the team to the final of the World Cup.
And despite a lacklustre display, the Barcelona star did it again in extra time against the Netherlands, dribbling past three players down the right wing before sending in a cross that Maxi Rodriguez couldn’t convert. There is always a moment.
Be sure that the Germans will be under no illusions over the potential destructiveness of the man.
But if in Messi Argentina have the greatest player, in Mascherano they have the player with the biggest heart.
Mascherano doesn’t just play football, he lives it, and he bleeds Argentinian blood. Tears flowed down his cheeks when I spoke to him after Wednesday’s game when it dawned upon him that the time had finally come for the youngster, who had left home at the age of 13 to try to make his fortune playing the sport that he played, ate, slept and breathed.
I believe this will be a match where Germany’s higher line and confidence with the ball will leave more spaces and, for the first time this tournament, for Argentina it will present more chances of fast counter-attacks. And it will be a match where the main focus will be not on brilliance, but on concentrating on not making mistakes.
And despite the emotions of all involved and all the talk of the placing of the final brushstroke on the magnificent canvas that is the career of Lionel Messi, ultimately, this is a match that will be won with the head rather than the heart.
My heart says Argentina seem destined to end two decades of hurt (they have not won anything since 1993). And do you know what? So does my head.
I feel it will be so tight we might go to penalties, unless someone produces some magic. It could be Messi.
*All quotes and information sourced first-hand.