Germany and Argentina share much history, and not just from the 1986 and 1990 World Cup finals.
The previous two World Cups have seen Germany end Argentina's campaign. Berlin 2006 saw Jens Lehmann's use of a scrap of paper psych out Argentina's penalty shootout takers, and Diego Maradona's bandwagon crashed four years later in Cape Town. Employing just one defensive midfielder in Javier Mascherano was never going to be enough to stop Germany's free-running attackers. It ended 4-0 and could have been many more.
Argentina must summon up the spirit of 1986 to beat an opponent who, in beating Brazil 7-1 in Belo Horizonte, delivered the most devastating result in tournament history. With Alejandro Sabella being a somewhat conservative coach, Argentina are highly unlikely to open the door as Maradona and Luiz Felipe Scolari did for German boss Joachim Loew. High-scoring finals stopped with that 3-2 scoreline in Mexico City, and began in Rome, when Maradona the player was denied by West Germany's 1-0 win. This is bound to be tight.
Manuel Neuer has had a fine tournament, both in terms of goalkeeping and his part-time job as a sweeper. There are shades of Oliver Kahn, the outstanding goalie of 2002's finals, but Neuer must hope he does not suffer the fate of his Bayern Munich predecessor. Kahn's fumble allowed Ronaldo to open the scoring in Yokohama and brutally blemish a fantastic tournament. Neuer made perhaps the save of the tournament in his strong-arm reflex save of Karim Benzema's shot in this stadium in the quarterfinals.
"Everyone knows he can play the ball, but the crucial thing is that he is there in the important moments to save his team," said an approving Kahn this week.
Sergio Romero took the limelight from Lionel Messi in becoming the hero of Argentina's shootout victory in Sao Paulo. He now has the chance to emulate Ubaldo Fillol and Nery Pumpido, Argentina's World Cup-winning goalkeepers, even if his denial of the Netherlands' spot-kicks reminded more of Sergio Goychochea, whose shootout excellence got Argentina to 1990's losing final. Romero had many doubts against his name, but has performed well enough to bury them. Can he follow those previous greats?
If there has been a weakness for Germany, the back line is the area which has caused most concern, though Mats Hummels' return from tendonitis locked things down in the quarterfinal. Such was Brazil's brain-melt that few conclusions on the defence could be drawn from Belo Horizonte. Earlier in the tournament, the high line that Loew prefers was problematic in that it did not favour Per Mertesacker. Benedikt Hoewedes sometimes looks like what he actually is -- a centre-back playing as left-back -- while how they deal with the Messi menace will, of course, be key to the outcome. Philipp Lahm's calming influence helps, though should Hummels' knee flare up again, then solidity might be surrendered.
Like the Germans, Argentina have found defensive solidity as the tournament has developed. Freshly-shorn Martin Demichelis has performed a reverse Samson since coming into the unit, and is a fine counterpoint to both Pablo Zabaleta, his Manchester City colleague, and Ezequiel Garay, who has become a real leader in Brazil. Marcos Rojo, meanwhile, has been a breakout star of the championship. Argentina's strength might actually lie in defence rather than attack, which few expected in pre-tournament.
Germany now churn out creative midfielders like it does top-end automobiles. Toni Kroos, chief midfield tormentor of Brazil, struts with the poise recalled of his country's finest, while Bastian Schweinsteiger has got stronger as the tournament has gone on. Loew's long wait for Sami Khedira's return from fitness now seems worth it. Khedira will no doubt be found in the territory from where Messi will be trying to prompt, a role the Real Madrid man will be familiar with from playing in Spanish clasicos. Mesut Ozil, meanwhile, is not everyone's cup of gluehwein, but can always sprinkle the magic dust when he flickers to life.
Javier Mascherano has acquired the status of action superhero after his heroics in the semifinal. He, rather than Messi, is the spiritual leader, and his partnership with Lucas Biglia supplies solidity and bite. Angel di Maria's possible participation is a leading storyline for the final, even if Enzo Perez has done little wrong in standing in for the Real Madrid middle-distance speedster. Without di Maria, Argentina lack a player who can carry the ball forward from deep, which means Messi has to come back to forage.
If this World Cup represents the flowering of Germany's planting of seeds for renewal after Euro 2000, then one thing missing is a striker to replace Miroslav Klose. The 36-year-old history-maker gets to sign off in the biggest match of all. This will be his second final, 12 years after his first, where he was overshadowed by Ronaldo. Klose carries a burden, with Thomas Mueller, a heavyweight contender for the Golden Ball, providing the most able of support, and always something for opponents to think about and fear.
This is Messi's day of destiny, the chance to summit football's Mount Olympus, though he might perhaps wish to have been more dominant throughout the tournament. Dutch boss Louis van Gaal neutralised Messi in the semifinal and the radar must have had insects in it; his passing was often awry. Having both performed well against Belgium in Brasilia, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Gonzalo Higuain flopped in Sao Paulo. The little man needs better help than that against Germany. Or his big moment might come and go.
Edge: Argentina, for Messi.
Andre Schuerrle's World Cup is another event to put a smile on Jose Mourinho's face. Chelsea's attacking midfielder has proved an excellent sub for Loew, and a decent stand-in for the loss of Marco Reus in pre-tournament. Schuerrle's eye for space is highly problematic for tired defenders. Mertesacker came on at halftime for Hummels in the semi, but that was the type of precaution possible at 5-0 up.
Sabella's usual port of call for subs is to lump on more strikers to support Messi. Rodrigo Palacio has been a preferred option, while Sergio Aguero's late arrival in Sao Paulo brought only a blank. Aguero does not seem anywhere near fit to start so he will probably be launched on in the hope his physique can hold up. Maxi Rodriguez, another player who can change things up, perhaps might have won the semifinal in extra time with a late shot that followed Palacio heading too close to Dutch goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen.
Loew entered this tournament as a nearly man whose teams had not achieved what should have been possible. Failure at Euro 2012 was especially stark, but Low now has the chance to join Sepp Herberger, Helmut Schoen and Franz Beckenbauer as a World Cup-winning coach. He has barely put a foot wrong, with due nod in the direction of the tough challenge that Algeria gave them in the last 16. Loew has shown that international coaches can have a long shelf life and still succeed. Whatever happens now, he was still the mastermind of a 7-1 win in a World Cup semifinal.
Where Cesar Luis Menotti is recalled as the mastermind of Argentina's 1978 World Cup winners, Carlos Bilardo's legacy is somewhat overshadowed by his having Diego Maradona in the team in the Albiceleste's triumph in 1986. That is unfair considering Bilardo's building of a team to galvanise Maradona. Sabella, however, is destined to be remembered as an adjunct to Messi, and rightly so. He has never quite found the formula to bring out the greatness. Sabella has done a fine job in getting Argentina to the final, for which he deserves credit, especially in sorting out what looked a porous defence, but his will always be recalled as a supporting role.
The pressures of playing in a World Cup final can do strange things to teams. These two nations lost their heads in 1990's final, where two Argentina players were dismissed, Maradona played terribly and Germany acted up in supplying repeated simulation. It is to be hoped that the Maracana gets a better spectacle than that. Even with the army of Argentines who are in Rio, the local hearts will be with Germany, though Argentina might be used to that by now.
Tiredness, too, might be a factor for Argentina, who played their semifinal a day later than Germany and went to extra time. Updates are required on injuries to di Maria, Aguero and Hummels, while news is keenly awaited on Mascherano, who remarked post-match "I tore my anus" in denying Dutch striker Arjen Robben in the 90th minute.
Prediction: Germany to win in extra time.