Two teams remain in the running for the 2014 World Cup trophy, and after one month of glorious, top-level football, it will all come down to this: the final between Argentina and Germany, at the legendary Maracana stadium on Sunday.
Both teams were heavy favourites to make it this far along with hosts Brazil, and with plenty of attacking talent taking the pitch on Sunday, this is exactly the kind of matchup neutral football fans want to see on the very biggest stage the sport has to offer.
Germany have scored a ridiculous 17 goals so far—Argentina have only conceded three. Something will have to give in the final, so it will be strength vs. strength when Die Mannschaft and the Albiceleste take to the pitch.
Here are the keys to victory for both teams.
Argentina: Take Advantage Of Germany's High Defensive Line
Like most possession-based teams, Germany employ a high defensive line and look to keep the spaces in the centre of the pitch as small as possible. This way, Die Mannschaft have the ability to track the ball in seconds, dominating possession along the way.
The high line also leaves the team vulnerable to balls over the top, something Algeria and France were able to exploit to some extent during their respective matches with the Germans
Per Mertesacker is a good centre-back, but he's not particularly mobile. The same goes for Benedict Howedes, who isn't a natural fit out wide and could struggle against Argentina's speedy wingers.
As reported by Goal, Mertesacker told reporters he believes Germany have quality players for every single position, including all of the defensive slots:
We have one of the strongest squads I've ever played in. We have two excellent players for every position and everyone believes in each other. We have created excellent team-spirit during the tournament and with those magnificent players growing up together it makes it easier.
He's not wrong, but there's no denying Argentina have the advantage when it comes to speed in the final third. Even the Brazilian full-backs had some success finding the back line in the early stages of the semi-final, before completely switching off.
Die Mannschaft have a phenomenal team, but like every team in world football, they're not without their weaknesses. Trying to beat them at their own game (possession and the battle in midfield) is useless—recognizing their one potential flaw is the way to beat them.
Real Madrid dispatched of Bayern Munich in the same way during this year's Champions League, and Germany's back four is arguably slower than Bayern's. By attacking the space behind that defensive line, Argentina will have their best chance at winning Sunday's final.
Germany: Pressure Argentina's Defence Early
Argentina's defensive prowess has been one of the tournament's most pleasant surprises, and given the unit's struggles during preparation for the World Cup, one could say their performances so far have been one of the main reasons for Argentina's success.
The group still has its detractors, however, and it's easy to see why. While the statistics may say Argentina have only conceded three goals so far, they've yet to face a truly strong attacking force the likes of Germany.
The Netherlands had no interest attacking in the semi-finals, Belgium's top forwards all struggled during the World Cup, Switzerland played with nine men behind the ball and the only team that truly attacked the Argentine defence was Nigeria, who scored twice on Sergio Romero.
Is the Albiceleste defence really that much improved, or are the statistics simply a by-product of a relatively easy path to the final? There's only one way to find out, and find out we will when the team takes on the tournament's leading scorers in Germany.
Argentina's most important midfield contributor is Javier Mascherano, who did a marvelous job playing help defence on Arjen Robben in the semi-final. Mascherano will likely be used as a shield for the defence against Germany, but if the pressure from Die Mannschaft is too high, more players will be forced to drop back.
That will open up tons of space in midfield, giving the German team what they love most—possession, and room to work the ball out wide.
Centre-back Ezequiel Garay told EFE (h/t to Ibn Live) he believes he and his defensive teammates have answered all of their critics:
"There was a lot of criticism of the defence. The team silenced all critics and played an impeccable match. We knew we had a very difficult time. The Netherlands is a difficult choice but the team did everything to neutralise it."
Here's the thing—they haven't, and the Germans know it. Argentina is still untested facing strong pressure from an elite attacking force, and until we actually see them shutting down a team like Germany, attacking them head-on is the way to go.