Who to Watch in the World Cup Final

Sunday, July 13, 2014
The main tension of a World Cup usually concerns who will lift the trophy after the final. Not so in 2014.

The narrative driving this summer's tournament has centered on Brazil, always Brazil -- the team, the country, the maddening relationship between the two. The amour fou has been on display in the stadiums and on the streets, from the anti-Fifa protests to the players' weeping fits and bouts of psychic trauma.

With all due credit to a German team that played the "joga bonito" Brazilians now only play on VHS, it was the host's emotional volatility that turned a likely semifinal defeat -- no shame in that -- into a national tragedy.

The final, to be played at Rio's storied Maracan, kicks off today in the shadows of that monumental capitulation. Germany enters planning for the perfect encore. They know their marks and have, in spells, married the traditional Vorsprung durch Technik with Spain's tiki-taka artistry to produce some of the most compelling performances of the past month.

Opposite them, Argentina and its tiny talisman Lionel Messi are vying for the country's third World Cup title and first since Diego Maradona orchestrated a dramatic defeat of West Germany in the 1986 final. In order for the matchup to be anything more than an afterword in the story of this "Copa Das Copas," the teams will have to craft something original and unique.

Is it likely? No. But as the Germans will tell you: "The ball is round" -- you never know.

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Here are a few things to watch for when you watch today's World Cup final:

Lionel Messi's quest to breakdown Germany's defense

Carlos Santana says he "looks like a plumber," but Argentina need Messi to play like a locksmith. The Barcelona star is the only one on his team, perhaps the only one on Earth, with the speed, precision, and guile to unlock Germany's defense. Algeria managed a late consolation in their round of 16 match, but despite running the Germans out of their cleats, couldn't crack the code when it mattered.

So how will the maestro look to conduct this operation? A look at the two goals Ghana managed in their group stage game suggest Germany possess three glaring weaknesses. Unfortunately for Argentina, two of them have been remedied by manager Joachim Low, who moved captain Philipp Lahm to his natural right back position from a spot in the midfield. That decision, nudged along by an injury to starter Shkodran Mustafi, freed Low to pair Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira as deep-lying midfielders. The pair, charged with protecting the back four and pinging smart passes up to the squad's stellar forward line, has been nearly flawless.

The other issue -- center back Per Mertesacker's leaden feet -- is off the table so long as Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels can stay on the field. Mertesacker was beaten on both goals in the Ghana match. On the first occasion, he was late to launch, allowing Andre Ayew get his head to a looping cross. The second began with a bad pass from Lahm, playing midfield at the time, and ended with Asamoah Gyan skating past the torpid Teuton.

Messi's best hope, winger ngel di Mara, will likely be watching from the sidelines. The Real Madrid star injured his thigh early in Argentina's quarterfinal match and has sought to speed his recovery with the help of some unproven stem cell treatments. With di Mara likely absent, manager Alejandro Sabella must choose between Diego Maradona's daughter's ex-husband, Sergio Agero, and Gonzalo Higuan, two players who, though talented goalscorers, lack threatening speed and have yet to make a compelling partnership with Messi.

Can Argentina's Javier Mascherano Keep His Nerve

Like Germany, La Albiceleste have been nearly impossible to unravel. They have not conceded a goal since the group stage, shutting out Switzerland, Belgium and Holland on their way to the Maracan. But, like so much else, a lot of that is owed to Messi. In the semifinal, it seemed that the Netherlands schemed exclusively for Messi, much as Argentina prepared only to neutralize Arjen Robben, no one bothering to consider how they might score a goal of their own. That won't be the case today. Germany will plan to keep the ball away from Messi, but not at the expense of their own attack.

Enter Javier Mascherano. The defensive midfielder, the lone destroyer in a sea of invention at Barcelona, is the heart of Argentina's defense, even if he is not part of their traditional back four. Mascherano is charged with roaming the space between the defenders and the rest of the midfield -- which, if Sabella learned anything from "Bra7il," will be flooded with blue and white shirts -- cutting off German attacking moves before they become dangerous and coming to the aid or rescue of teammates. If Mascherano were not so proficient at the latter, Argentina might not be playing today and he might not have "torn [his] anus" -- the diagnosis he passed along to the press Thursday -- making this game-saving tackle on Robben.

Argentina need 3 or 4 things to happen if they're going to beat the favorites. One is for Mascherano to play the game of his life. Anything else, any prominent mention of the name Federico Fernndez, likely means a comfortably won fourth World Cup for Germany. (Historical note: It would actually be unified Germany's first title. The 1954, 1974, and 1990 teams were all West Germany.)

Germany's Brilliant Bookends

When ESPN flashes the German starting XI before the game, there will be two names, one at the top of the screen and one at the bottom, sitting all alone.

Miroslav Klose is Germany's only true striker. He's also, with his goal against Brazil on Tuesday, the World Cup's all-time leading scorer. An unused sub in two of die Nationalmannschaft's first five matches, Klose started the quarter- and semifinal, his presence giving their incredibly clever and talented midfield a necessary focal point. The 36-year-old is a master of creating space and opening up passing lanes for his teammates to feed him the ball.

And he does the little things, almost invisible at first blush, that make Germany so lethal in the final third of the field. Watch him help set the stage for Germany's first goal against Brazil -- Klose is the guy in the No. 11 shirt setting the Karl Malone-esque pick on David Luiz -- by freeing up Thomas Mller to sweep home a perfectly placed corner kick.

At the other end of the team sheet is German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. The Bayern Munich star, one of seven on the roster, is not just the best in the world at his position, but could probably challenge his teammates for a spot playing center back, central midfield or striker, too. From his current position, though, Neuer directs traffic as well as anyone, and when a gap opens up behind Germany's aggressive but slow back line, he morphs into the "sweeper-keeper," dashing out of his 18-yard box to play the ball with his nimble feet.

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