A cautious final between Argentina and Germany
BUENOS AIRES -- The image of the two very different semifinals and, above all, the manner in which the two finalists secured victory, may be misleading. It would be a mistake to envision the final based on the manner in which Germany destroyed Brazil on the one hand, and the deadlock that Argentina managed to break only through penalties against Holland on the other.
It's true that we tend to recall only those things that happen most recently, and due to this, many people were impressed by the German performance, while at the same time assuming that Argentina will have no answer to a similar attacking onslaught. This idea is pie in the sky, though, and as such, is just one of a vast amount, maybe millions, of possible outcomes, very unlikely to actually happen.
Argentina vs. Germany (3 ET: ABC & WatchESPN)
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To play the game before setting foot on the field, as we say in this sport, is a common error among soccer players, who can wear themselves out prematurely; it's also an error that analysts are prone to, when it's obvious that all matches are different, and that comparing Germany with the Netherlands or Brazil with Argentina when trying to predict a result is a complete waste of time.
It would make more sense to think of both teams not only on the basis of their strengths and weaknesses, but also on the basis of the tools they have at their disposal to counteract the plans of their opponent. Continuing on this theme, and if you wanted to draw out any similarities, it would make much more sense to conclude that the crucial match, if by any chance it were to resemble any of the semifinals, is much more likely to follow the pattern of the second semifinal rather than the first.
Why? Because each team has a very good idea as to what would suit the other team. And, in this regard, unless the game opens up early on due to unforeseen circumstances (a goal, a card, an injury), both teams know that taking too many risks is the best way to go home empty-handed.
It's true that Germany have a real attacking tendency, and that at times it seems as though their players have been programmed to find the quickest way to goal, with an almost otherworldly efficiency. But they're not self-defeating. They know all too well that Argentina possess players with pace, able to beat their man in a one-on-one situation, and that the more space they are given, the more chance they'll have to win these small battles.
Argentina, for their part, have taught a lesson in how to play in the knockout stages, perfecting their style as the games have progressed. Since the heart-stopping moments in the group stage and even against Switzerland, they have managed to almost completely cancel out both Belgium and Holland. Thanks to the changes he made, Alejandro Sabella has found the balance that was lacking in the early games, although this has led to a reduced attacking threat.
As we said when analyzing the semifinals, Argentina still have Lionel Messi, a player who can change the course of any game at any time. Some of Argentina's opponents have managed to cancel him out better than others, but he's still had moments in which he was simply unstoppable. These moments were more sporadic in the previous round, but this has a lot to do with the players he was up against.
Germany will be no exception: they understand that they can't give Messi free rein to operate in the area on the shoulders of the attacking midfielders and facing the defense. The double pivot consisting of Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger will most certainly be more concerned with containment than with breaking forward to support the attackers.
The way they interchanged their roles was eye-catching. Khedira, generally the one who plays closer to his back line, broke forward into the opponent's box like never before, playing a key role in the moves involving multiple passes within the box during the avalanche of goals that marked the end for Brazil, even chipping in with a goal of his own. Schweinsteiger, on the other hand, normally a nightmare for any opponent with his runs and knack for taking up goal-scoring positions, as the Argentina side from 2010 can well testify, played a much more contained role, close to his own back four.
This might have something to do with the manner in which they arrived in Brazil. Khedira tore his knee ligaments several months ago and got back to full fitness only just before the tournament, meaning he is notably fresh, while Schweinsteiger struggled all season with injuries that meant he didn't arrive in top form. Either way, the fact that they can each play both roles is one of Germany's great strengths.
Germany are steady at the back, but no more than that. Above all, they lack pace, with the exception of Philipp Lahm, who has returned to his natural position on the flanks. The fact that they know some of their players can be beaten in a one-on-one by Messi, Ezequiel Lavezzi and, eventually, by Angel di María will make the Germans take more precautions.
In terms of Argentina, they need to work as hard to find space as they did in the past three matches: intelligently, patiently, seeking to play the ball between the lines. They'll have to put in a lot of effort to create chances, which is another reason not to open themselves up at the back. They know that it will be a difficult task to come back from a losing position, with the added risk of being exposed to a sucker punch on the counterattack. To reiterate, the lessons of 2010 should be more than taken on board.
Germany are strong in the air, and a number of their goals have stemmed from this, but I don't see it being a major advantage against Argentina, who possess some tall players with a strong leap, both defensively and offensively.
I get the impression that each team will line up with the same starting XI as earlier in the week. Mesut Ozil seems to have the upper hand over Mario Goetze when it comes to retaining his starting spot, while Di María's return seems unlikely, due to the Real Madrid player's fitness and the fact that his return would destabilize a team that has seemed very secure as it is.
Therefore, you shouldn't expect an open game, filled with goals, like the one we saw in Belo Horizonte. You'd be better to prepare yourself for a tactical battle of the highest order, like the one we witnessed in Sao Paulo. And as I've been saying ever since this World Cup began: for their amazing attacking quality, but also because of what my heart tells me, I hope that Argentina are victorious.
Carlos Bianchi writes for ESPN FC Argentina and is the former manager of Boca Juniors, Argentina's most popular club. As a manager, he has won the most titles in Argentine football history, with Boca and Velez.