When the world’s eyes turn to Rio de Janeiro on Sunday to witness football history unfolding, some of the brightest stars of the international game will be at the centre of their attention.
Germany vs. Argentina in the World Cup final will boast the likes of Thomas Mueller, Mesut Ozil, Gonzalo Higuain and, of course, Lionel Messi, but it’s the men away from the goalscoring spotlight that will have the final say on proceedings in Rio de Janeiro.
Two footballing nations with a wealth of attacking talent at their disposal squaring off means that defence is where Sunday’s final will be won and lost. Here, we take a look at two unlikely heroes whose performances will drastically affect the fine line between agony and ecstasy.
Mats Hummels, Germany
At the heart of the German defence stands Mats Hummels, who has been nothing short of sensational in the World Cup so far.
Putting together solid performance after solid performance, the Borussia Dortmund star is integral to manager Joachim Low’s tactical approach, which is why pulses would have been racing when his fitness for the match was called into question recently.
The 25-year-old was hauled off at half time during Germany’s 7-1 thrashing of Brazil in the semi-finals with a knee injury and faces a fitness race ahead of Sunday’s showpiece final.
However, team manager Oliver Bierhoff told German TV that he’ll be fit and ready to face Argentina at the famous Maracana, with his substitution acting only as a precaution, per Oliver Todd of MailOnline:
"Everyone’s okay except for Mats Hummels and he’s getting further treatment. It’s a precautionary measure. We assume he’ll be able to play in the final."
Bierhoff’s words will be music to German ears, as the three-time champions would undoubtedly struggle against the Argentinian front line without their star man at the back.
Though he hasn’t come up against a strike force as potent as Argentina’s just yet, Hummels has dealt with everything that’s been thrown at him so far in Brazil, and Rio Ferdinand has him down among the best centre-backs at the tournament:
Best CB's in the tournament were Vlaar, Hummels & Gonzalez. Silva never covered himself in glory after coming here as the best CB in my eyes— Rio Ferdinand (@rioferdy5) July 12, 2014
At times his defending has been perfect, combining his strength and pitch presence with an intelligent style, as ESPN’s Dermot Corrigan revealed:
Hummels sees Howedes out of position, Maicon coming, strolls over and blocks the cross...— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) July 8, 2014
It’s how Hummels handles Messi on Sunday that will decide the destination of the World Cup trophy, and he’ll need another big performance to keep the Barcelona man in check.
However, the 27-year-old forward hasn’t scored since Argentina’s final group-stage match against Nigeria, and his performances haven’t exactly screamed “best player on the planet”—a sentiment that Gary Lineker agrees with in his column for BBC Sport:
“There is something not quite right with Lionel Messi at this World Cup. I am the Argentina captain's biggest fan and he is the most wonderfully gifted player since Diego Maradona but, here in Brazil, I have been disappointed with what I have seen.”
Hummels can’t afford to rest on his laurels, though; if anyone can change a match in a matter of seconds, then it’s Messi.
It’s bound to be a fascinating duel, but so long as the Germany defender keeps his form up, he’ll undoubtedly take a leaf out of Netherlands’ Ron Vlaar’s book and keep the Argentina skipper quiet.
Javier Mascherano, Argentina
For all the buzz surrounding Argentina’s front line, the man operating just in front of their back four has been their star of the show in recent matches.
Javier Mascherano, a player rarely decorated with praise and headlines, has brought his best form to Brazil and is now just one match away from the world-champion title that his performances deserve.
His tough-tackling approach will be vital against the gritty Germans on Sunday, as playing them at their own game may be Argentina’s best chance of reaping success.
That’s the way that Argentina set up against Netherlands, too, and Mascherano’s work breaking down Dutch attacks is arguably what saw them through to Sunday’s final.
Most notably of all, the Barcelona man thwarted Arjen Robben’s chance of winning the match toward the end of regulation time with a goal-saving challenge, as BBC Sport’s Phil McNulty highlighted:
Great tackle by Mascherano on Robben the angle - looked like the moment for the Netherlands.— Phil McNulty (@philmcnulty) July 9, 2014
Showing such energy and willingness in the dying embers of a match is what makes Mascherano so special, as he lets his heart operate his talented legs.
He’ll need all the passion in the world to stop the German effort, but midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger is wary of the threat posed by the determined 30-year-old—as Sky Sports reported:
"Javier Mascherano is the leader of a pack of wolves—as he showed with the tackle against Arjen Robben to deny him a goal. You see what kind of attitude he has for his country. It will not be easy for us. Argentina are a very, very good team who are deservedly in the final.”
Schweinsteiger will come face-to-face with the leader of the Argentinian pack on Sunday, and if Mascherano can win that personal battle, then it gives his side’s talented forwards the chance to shine.
The way football is means that if a striker scores a winning goal the headlines are his, but it’s the work behind the scenes that makes that possible.
Hummels and Mascherano are two players at the top of their respective games, and both are just a man-of-the-match performance away from being crowned a world champion.