By Shikharr Chandra
It is the battle of the best player against the best team. While Lionel Messi is on the verge of cementing his status as the greatest of all time, Germany's golden generation on the other hand, look to put the hoodoo of losing in the final stages behind them. Below we look at the various tactical battles that could come up during the course of the game.
How they will line up
Both sides are expected to lineup similarly as they did in their semi-final clash with no suspension worries. With Angel Di Maria expected to miss the final, Messi would be handed a free role to link the midfield with attack. The two teams are expected to play in a 4-3-3 formation and maintain their usual counter attacking brand of football.
What will be interesting to see is whether Mario Gotze or Andre Schurrle gets a start instead of Miroslav Klose. The reason being they can draw out the Argetine defenders and create space for their team-mates to exploits. Also, with the Argentine defense working well against an out and out goal scorer as seen against the Netherlands, a false 9 could play dividends.
Argentina need to find a solution to Germany's high pressing
Germany's style over the past few years has been compared to what Spain have shown the world in the last decade or so. The 'tiki-taka' brand of football that brought laurels to the La Roja has been a key factor in this German side as well but it is not entirely the possession based approach that has taken Joachim Low's side so far in the competition. Instead they have looked best when counter attacking. What made their semi-final victory over Brazil even more emphatic was how well the side dominated the midfield with Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos putting in arguably their best performance of the tournament. The duo pushed high up the pitch often leaving both Fernandinho and Luis Gustavo with little to ponder about which was evident in the fourth goal they scored when Kroos robbed the ball of the Manchester City midfielder and then combined well with Khedira to add his second.
What has been impressive to note is how well the entire team has bought into this tactic. Even goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has played a key role and his presence often as a sweeper has helped. With the defense often playing a high line it becomes important for the goalkeeper to make sure that no space is left behind and Neuer's presence as a sweeper has helped the Germans in that regard.
Javier Mascherano 's importance
Much emphasis has been paid on Messi and how he has single handedly carried this side to the finals, but one man who has not got his fair share of credit has been Mascherano. The Barcelona star who played as a center back the entire campaign has been impressive in his more natural role as a defensive midfielder for his country. Ahead of the competition, Argentina's defense was identified as their major weakness but they have gone on to be one of the most organised defensive units in the the tournament with their midfield contributing in supporting the back four.
Unlike the Germans, Alessandro Sabella's side don't press high up the pitch instead drop back by forming a six man defensive wall. It might not be the most pleasing tactic to watch but has been one that has worked perfectly for them in the entire tournament, having conceeded more than one goal just once against Nigeria in the group stages.
Mascherano was arguably the best player for Sabella when the side met Netherlands in the semi-final. The former Liverpool star was excellent throughout the game and matched Arjen Robben toe-to-toe giving him no space at all to work with. His last ditch tackle towards the end to stop the Bayern winger was without doubt the best moment of the game.
Messi needs to find a partner in Di Maria's absence
Angel Di Maria's absence will be felt on Sunday evening when the Argentines step out. The Real Madrid winger has arguably been the best attacking player alongisde Messi for the South Americans and their combination play has been the key for Sabella in breaking down defenses. In his absence Messi doesn't have a player who can support and provide him the freedom in the attacking half.
Di Maria has excelled in his new found role as the central midfielder and his ability to run at defenders from the deep offers Messi more space to operate in, something neither Ezequiel Lavezzi nor Enzo Perez are capable of. The central midfield lacks the pace and guile and thus Messi often has to drop deep in providing the support from the back to move the ball quickly.
The passing combination between the duo ranks the highest in the attacking half for the Albiceleste when compared to how they link up with the rest of the players such as Gonzalo Higuain or Lavezzi. Against Switzerland, Messi linked up just once with Higuain in the entire game as compared to eleven times with the Real Madrid star. Whereas Di Maria on the other hand complemented Messi the most as well.
How to stop Lionel Messi?
The big question for the Germans is how to stop Messi. While many have tried to contain the Barcelona striker few have succeeded such as the Dutch. The Argentine has arguably been the best player in the World Cup so far and on majority of the occassions has dominated the play single-handedly.
The onus will be on Bastian Schweinsteiger to stop one of the most gifted player. Against Belgium, the duo of Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini were not up to the task which ultimately played a key role in the side getting knocked out and with Schweinsteiger not being a natural defensive player, Low needs to make sure he gets able support from his midfield partners when needed. Depending on how well they do their job will eventually decide who will go on to win this World Cup, such is the importance of the task.
Clash of similar styles
As the two teams step out, what will be interesting to see is how well they counter their similar formations. Despite the similarites, Germany have often pressed high up the pitch while Argentina have opted to sit back and let Messi dictate the play.
Germany's midfield of Kroos, Khedira and Schweinsteiger are far more adventurous with atleast two of them often bombing forward which is in stark contrast to that of Argentina. With Sabella's side lacking a natural playmaker with the absence of Di Maria,Messi would often drop deep and would look to dictate the play.
The final at the Maracana promises to be an enticing affair to bring down the curtains on what has been one of the most spectacular World Cups in recent times.