SB Nation

SB Nation Soccer Staff | July 11, 2014

The SB Nation World Cup Final Preview

SB Nation’s 2014World Cup Final PreviewArgentina vs. Germany
Sunday July 13, 3:00pm EDT

Have you been enjoying yourself? We have. Are you struggling to believe that it's nearly all over? We are. Thirty teams down, two left, and they'll meet on Sunday in the biggest game that football has to offer. We could not be more excited.

The question of whether this has been the best World Cup ever is probably an unanswerable one, but that the question can be asked at all is indicative of quite how high this tournament's highs have been. If nothing else, then its place in history has been sealed by two of modern football's most ludicrous international results. The tournament exploded on the second day, when Netherlands put five past reigning champions Spain to end the dominance of one of the greatest teams in recent history. Then it exploded again, bigger and louder and much, much messier, when Germany slaughtered, cooked and devoured the hosts at their own table. Not great manners, no, but certainly some spectacle.

But even aside from those exclamation points, there's been plenty else, almost everything that World Cup fans could wish for. We've had surprise packages: Costa Rica's breezy escape from one of the most difficult groups just about trumps Chile's giddy romp to within inches of knocking Brazil out early (which might, in hindsight, have been a kindness). We've teetered on the edge of numerous other upsets: look back at the results of the last sixteen knock-out games, and consider just how close we were to having eight quarterfinalists that had never won the tournament.

We've had hilarity and scandal — sometimes at the same time, Luis — we've had great players doing great things, along with stupid players being stupid, Pepe. We've had pretty terrible draws redeemed by the popping-candy rush that is penalties, guaranteed to perk up even the most moribund of knockout games. And we've had goals. Piles and piles of them, the most since 1998. Some of them were stone-cold classics, too, from Robin van Persie's porpoise to Tim Cahill's thunderbolt, from James Rodríguez's super-cool, super-smooth chest-and-volley to André Schürrle's merciless twisting of the knife.

What we haven't got is the final that the script demanded. Neymar isn't going to have the chance to avenge the ghosts of 1950; he and his colleagues have their own hauntings, now. But it doesn't matter in the slightest to the wider world, since what we've got is plenty juicy. Five previous titles between them. A rematch of the 1986 and 1990 finals, which fell one to each side. One of the greatest players of all time lining up against one of the modern game's finest collections of talent, both needing this to complete themselves. And we've got, as it always should be, probably the best two teams in the competition. It's Germany against Argentina. Get prepared.

The Players

Click player names for profiles

Romero Zabaleta Demichelis Garay Rojo Biglia Mascherano di María Higuaín Messi Lavezzi Neuer Lahm Boateng Hummels Höwedes Schweinsteiger Khedira Müller Kroos Özil Klose
Argentina

Substitutes

Andújar Orión Campagnaro F. Fernández Basanta Gago Maxi A. Fernández Álvarez Pérez Palacio Agüero
Germany

Substitutes

Weidenfeller Zieler GroßkreutzGinter Durm Mertesacker Mustafi SchürrlePodolskiDraxlerGötzeKramer

Argentina

Sergio Romero

Heading into the World Cup, Argentina’s big fear was their goalkeeper. Coach Alejandro Sabella lacked a genuine world class option between the sticks, and had to settle for sending Sergio Romero to Brazil with the No. 1 shirt. Having spent the season as backup to Danijel Subašić at club side Monaco, Romero had played virtually no competitive club football for a year. When he’d been a regular at Sampdoria the season before, he was unconvincing.

Flash forward a few weeks, and Romero is a national hero.

Having dived to stop two Netherlands’ penalties in Argentina’s semifinal shootout win, Romero is one victory away from ensuring his place in footballing legend. Sure, he still hasn't looked totally convincing in open play, with an excessive propensity to punch rather than catch and the occasional reluctance to sweep up behind his defenders. But should Argentina win this game, no one will care. Romero will be the greatest goalkeeper they’ve ever had.

Pablo Zabaleta

Pablo Zabaleta is one of those footballers that attracts certain words. "Solid," is one. "Dependable," another. "Committed." "Reliable." "Balding." "Meaty." The overriding image is of the kind of footballer that every side needs and every manager loves: forever shouting at somebody or something, forever pointing somewhere, forever rubbing some sensitive part of his body and grimacing, then jumping into another tackle. A being composed entirely of tendons and effort and running and sweat.

And so on. All true, of course, and yet the picture is somewhat incomplete. Over the last couple of years at Manchester City, Zabaleta has emerged as a top-class modern fullback, his effort and stamina allied to an admirable defensive technique and a persistent and effective, if not exactly subtle, attacking dimension. Ever-present for Argentina throughout the tournament, he's been a model of consistency, even though his forward runs have been sacrificed somewhat in the pursuit of clean sheets. He's also extremely hard to injure, completing the semifinal even after taking delivery of a flying Dirk Kuyt full in the face. See? Meaty.

Martín Demichelis

Martín Demichelis had a slightly odd season with Manchester City. Though his initial performances were shaky, and though he made a couple of high-profile mistakes, neither of those things are too surprising for a veteran center back, bought as a squad player, playing his first season in a new country. His performances improved and Demichelis became a fixture in a title-winning side, yet he never quite managed to persuade the English press that he was anything other than a bit of a joke.

Unfair, of course, but that's the English press for you (perhaps it was the ponytail, now gone). He's not the quickest defender in the world, and somehow he always seems to be on the verge of doing something rash, but Demichelis remains an excellent, experienced reader of the game and a secure presence at the back, as long as he doesn't spend too much time getting turned around. His late-season form for City saw him recalled him to the international squad after two years in the wilderness, and while he didn't start the tournament in the first XI, he was thrown in against Belgium, then kept his place for the semifinal against Netherlands, as Argentina kept two clean sheets.

Ezequiel Garay

Argentina haven’t been spectacular in defense since the retirement of Roberto Ayala and the exile of the ageless Javier Zanetti, but Ezequiel Garay has been a pretty consistent force in the center of the pitch for the albiceleste.

Always the subject of links to clubs like Bayern Munich and Manchester United, the now-former Benfica central defender has taken another path, opting to sign for Russian giants Zenit St. Petersburg in the middle of the World Cup. His potential move to those big clubs and a price tag in the neighborhood of €20m was always mocked, but at €6m, he’s quite a steal for Zenit, even if they pay him very big wages.

Garay is one of the slowest top-level central defenders you’ll ever see, but he dominates in the air, is a pretty nasty tackler and has good enough anticipation to make up for his lack of pace. And against Germany, that anticipation thing will be the most important aspect of his game — Die Mannschaft are a team focused on intelligent movement rather than one about speed or power.

Marcos Rojo

Marcos Rojo is a center back by trade, having played at the heart of the defenses of both Spartak Moscow and Sporting Lisbon since moving to Europe three years ago. However, rather than fielding him in his most comfortable position, Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella prefers to make the most of Rojo’s mobility, deploying him on the left side of his back four.

Certainly, it’s a decision out of necessity as much as desire, with Argentina lacking a natural left-back to slot into their starting lineup. But even so, Rojo is comfortable on the ball, and more than able to deliver crosses into the box from high up the field. He’s quicker than your average center back, and makes the most of his pace to cause opposing defenses problems. Rojo may start the final out of position, but he won’t necessarily look out of place.

Injury note: Rojo is nursing a sore ankle, but as of Saturday is expected to start the final. If he's not fit enough to do so, he'll be replaced by José María Basanta

Lucas Biglia

Lucas Biglia was an Argentina U-17 and U-20 international and a star for Independiente, but it took a while for his career to really take off. It took some time for him to settle in after a move to Anderlecht, thus delaying his first international cap, which finally came in 2011. It was only after his success with the Belgian side in the Champions League that he secured a regular spot in the Argentina lineup, shortly before moving to Italian side Lazio.

Biglia was used off the bench early in the World Cup, but Argentina have opted for a tougher, more physical team in the last two matches, with Alejandro Sabella bringing Biglia into the starting lineup as a result. He’s not spectacular, but he’s disciplined and a wonderful tackler. Together with Javier Mascherano, Argentina now have more than enough steel in the midfield. Biglia may not stand out, but he allows the flair players in front of him to do so.

Javier Mascherano

For most of the footballing year, Javier Mascherano is a center back. This is because Pep Guardiola and his acolytes are weird. Everybody gets to play in midfield, except for one of the world's best defensive midfielders. He has to go and stand next to Gerard Piqué.

With Argentina, however, he is liberated from this indignity — which, to be fair, he doesn't do that terribly — and he has, over the course of the tournament, quietly reasserted himself in his favored and best position. It's not a glamorous job, of course, closing down space and breaking up play and occasionally kicking the odd ankle (just out of necessity, you understand). But he's very, very good at it; so good that Argentina's defensive organization, widely expected pre-tournament to be their weakness, has outshone their much-vaunted, slightly-disappointing attack. And Mascherano is where that defense begins. Sometimes, as with the match-saving tackle on Arjen Robben in the semifinal, it's where it ends as well.

He's not just a destroyer — his passing in midfield has been crisp, clean and effective and he even had a shot earlier in the tournament, though obviously it didn't go in — but it's at the attritional stuff where he truly excels, a niggling, smothering presence that throws opponents right off their game. So in some ways it would be a shame to see him excel in the final, as that likely means it's a pretty dreadful game of football. But then life can't all be sunshine, roses, and Lionel Messi skipping past defenders. Somebody has to do the dirty work.

Ángel di María

Ángel di María has long been considered to belong to that curious class of players who aren’t quite stars. Excellent? Yes. Valuable? Absolutely. But vital to a team’s hopes of winning silverware? Not quite. Until last year, that is.

Di María entered the World Cup coming off of his best season ever, scoring 11 goals and notching 26 assists for Real Madrid. He’s pacey, quick, smart and can make an impact all over the pitch. The thinking was that he would be the perfect complement to Messi this summer, but instead he struggled. His passing was off and his finishing poor, but that was still a better di María than the one Argentina have now — an injured one.

A thigh injury in the quarterfinals kept di María out of the semis and he’s unlikely to play in the final. Even if he hasn’t been at his best, Argentina will be praying he can get fit in time for Sunday.

Injury note/update: On Saturday, di María was ahead of Enzo Pérez in training, and therefore seems likely to start in the final.

Gonzalo Higuaín

Replacing Edinson Cavani was always going to be hard work. No one would’ve blamed Napoli fans if they hadn’t welcomed Gonzalo Higuaín with open arms. In fact, the fanbase was rather standoffish – until the ex-Real Madrid man started scoring. His first goal came in his second appearance, and Pipita never looked back, finishing the season with 24 goals in all competitions for his new club.

But his World Cup has come as something of a disappointment. Higuaín picked up a knock before Argentina’s opening match, and looked out of sorts through the first four games. He finally came to life against Belgium, taking advantage of a deflection to finish off a perfect shot, his fantastic volley nestling just inside the far post. The forward had to be content with scoring the game’s only goal, with the crossbar denying him in the second half after a winding dribble brought him one-on-one with Thibaut Courtois.

Against Netherlands, Higuaín failed to impress once more, but he’s unlikely to lose out on his starting role. For one, no one really impressed in the semifinal. For two, there’s no way Alejandro Sabella will make the same foolish choices he made in the first match, electing to switch tactics and favor a more defensive lineup. He’ll stick with four attackers, and Higuaín will be there from the start.

Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi is just your average footballer. He’s won the Ballon d’Or four times, led the Champions League in goals four times, has scored 42 goals for Argentina and once notched 91 goals in a year.

Is it any wonder, then, that most of the chatter prior to the World Cup focused on Neymar, or Cristiano Ronaldo, or even Mario Götze? A few injuries and a relatively disappointing season for Barcelona did mean that many neutrals pinned their hopes for individual brilliance elsewhere, but when it comes to Argentina the pressure’s always been on for Messi.

Messi’s consistently come under criticism for failing to perform as well for his country as he does for his club. But as he’s nearly single-handedly carried Argentina this far in the tournament, perceptions are starting to change, and Messi is finally becoming a hero for his country.

Should Messi lift the World Cup on Sunday night, he’ll have finally won the biggest trophy in the sport. At that point, it will be difficult to argue against his crowning as the best player to ever play the game — at both club and country levels.

Ezequiel Lavezzi

The PSG forward was never meant to have a starting role in Alejandro Sabella’s side. But this is life, or football at least, and sometimes stuff happens. Like Sergio Agüero getting ruled out with injury. Who could’ve predicted such a thing?

Of course, most teams would be thrilled to have a regular starter from a title-winning side just sitting on the bench. And certainly should count themselves lucky. Lavezzi might not be the most potent of goal-scoring threats, but he more than makes up for a lack of high numbers by being a consistent threat to defenders. He’s excellent with the ball at his feet, and his pace could well make the difference if Argentina are finally able to show off a decent counterattack against Germany.

Plus, Lavezzi carries with him a delightfully devilish sense of humor. In training last week, Lavezzi lightened the mood by imitating the now-infamous "Sabella Swoon," the Argentina manager’s near-fall in reaction to seeing Gonzalo Higuaín hit the crossbar. He also let Sabella know exactly what he thought of him during a water break, cheekily squirting water into the coach’s face as he issued instructions.

Come to think of it, this may have been why Sabella never chose Lavezzi as a regular starter …

Mariano Andújar

It must be tough to be a highly experienced goalkeeper, yet constantly serve as an understudy on your international team – especially when the first choice ‘keeper played exactly two games for his club over the past season.

But that’s the life of 30-year-old Mariano Andújar, who’s been at Catania the last five seasons. He was actually purchased by Napoli last January, but spent the remainder of the season on loan with the Sicilian club. His insistence on a move away from the elefanti saw Andújar dropped for a spell, but let’s face it, when you’re first-choice keeper for a club that got themselves relegated, conceding 66 goals along the way, no one’s probably going to be all that excited about you starting for the national team.

He does have a couple more inches than Sergio Romero, however, so if Alejandro Sabella finds himself in need of a tiny bit of extra height …

Agustín Orión

Pretty strictly a Superclasico de las Americas guy, Agustín Orión doesn’t get to play real games for Argentina. He’s never taken the risk of heading over to Europe, and that might actually be for the best — Sergio Romero is a backup at Monaco and Mariano Andújar just got relegated.

He’s carved out a comfortable niche for himself as the top guy in the Argentine Primera and as the domestic friendlies keeper, and it’s got him a trip to the World Cup. Way to reward the always reliable, if unspectacular, pro.

Hugo Campagnaro

Inter sent three players to the World Cup with Argentina and none of them have been consistent starters, with only Rodrigo Palacio seeing any significant time. The blame for this can probably be laid at Walter Mazzarri’s feet. Somehow.

Despite Campagnaro being a regular under Mazzarri at Napoli, and indeed proving himself to be their best defender, his time in the Argentina squad has been severely limited. The 34-year-old only got his first cap two years ago, and plays a distinct third-fiddle to the likes of Martín Demichelis and Federico Fernández. His only World Cup appearance came against Bosnia in Argentina’s first match, and that’s likely to be his last as well.

Federico Fernández

It was, perhaps, a bit surprising to see Federico Fernández included in the starting back line for Argentina. He established himself as a regular during qualifying, despite also regularly causing panic when included in Napoli’s starting XI.

To give Fernández credit, he’s certainly improved since joining the partenopei back in 2011. Injuries meant Rafa Benítez was more or less forced to use Fernández regularly last season, even starting him in four of Napoli’s Champions League matches. His 30 games produced a much greater consistency in the defender, to the point where, by the end of the season, fans no longer needed to cover their eyes and cower in fear when the ball came near.

Yet for the neutral, it’s still a bit more fun when Fernández is involved – at least he brings an element of surprise to the match. Don’t expect Alejandro Sabella to take that risk on Sunday, however. It looks like Martín Demichelis will be the one to start against Germany.

Jose Maria Basanta

When one takes a glance at Argentina’s squad, Jose Maria Basanta is the name which sticks out like a sore thumb. He’s a veteran at 30 years of age, but he only has 12 caps to his name. While the rest of the squad plies their trade domestically or at the biggest clubs in Europe, Basanta plays in Mexico, where he’s been a rock in Monterrey’s defense through multiple domestic and continental title runs.

Usually, players like Basanta who make unconventional career moves are overlooked by their national teams, but Basanta is too valuable to be left off this Argentina squad. He’s equally adept at central defense and left back, with the size to play the former and the agility to play the latter. There’s no truly spectacular aspect of his game, but he’s never going to cost his team a match with a mental error or athletic deficiency.

Basanta’s no star, but it’s not a problem if Argentina need to use him to replace an injured defender either. He’s as reliable and versatile a backup as any coach could ever hope for.

Fernando Gago

Sing it with me! All we need is, *clap clap* Fernando Gago, *clap clap* Fernando Gaaaaaaago, *clap clap* Fernando Gago!

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, serious business. Gago is similar to Lucas Biglia, who he’s been rotating with throughout the tournament. Both players are defensively solid midfield metronomes who don’t give the ball away and get the ball to Lionel Messi in non-flashy ways … in theory.

In practice, Gago and Biglia have both been disappointing. Yes, Argentina are in the World Cup final, so things aren’t all that bad, but when the albiceleste ran riot through qualifying and their warm-up friendlies, much of this had to do with Gago being very, very good. Due to Gago’s struggles, Alejandro Sabella has turned to Biglia instead in recent matches, but Biglia hasn’t been any better.

It’s anyone’s guess as to which of Biglia or Gago starts the final, but if Argentina are to beat Germany, whoever gets the nod will need to shine rather than struggle.

Enzo Pérez

There’s only one Argentinian in the world who’s hoping Ángel di María is sidelined in the World Cup final, and that’s his likely replacement Enzo Pérez. The Benfica midfielder filled in ably in di María’s absence for their semifinal, and is the favorite to do the same against Germany if his teammate still hasn’t recovered from his thigh problem.

Di María would no doubt be a big miss for Argentina, but if Pérez were to play as well as he did against the Netherlands, his absence shouldn’t be too problematic. Pérez proved he was more than just a static deep playmaker by putting in an industrious performance on the right side of Argentina’s midfield trio, breaking forward excellently ahead of the more defensive-minded duo of Lucas Biglia and Javier Mascherano. If he plays, Germany would be wise to try and keep him quiet.

Maxi Rodríguez

Maxi Rodríguez has never been a superstar, yet he’s always been around. Be it for Argentina, Newell’s Old Boys, Espanyol, Atlético Madrid or Liverpool, he’s always there. He’s playing, he’s frustrating, he’s thrilling.

Rodríguez first went to the World Cup in 2006, where he scored one of the best goals in tournament history, chesting down a cross field pass to volley into goal, beating Mexico in the process. He also punched Bastian Schweinsteiger that year, after Argentina lost to Germany in the quarterfinal.

Might we see something similar this time around?

Few expected Rodríguez to still be in the Argentina team at this World Cup, having turned 33 and slowed down, but he made it in part because he’s a calming, experienced voice in the dressing room. Toss that in with legs that still have a bit of pace left in them and you have a player who has played just 64 minutes this tournament, but might still make an impact in the final. After all, it was his penalty that got Argentina to the final. If history has taught us anything, it’s that Rodríguez will end up in the middle of the drama somehow.

Augusto Fernández

Augusto Fernández’s first foray into European soccer with Saint-Etienne was a failure, but he’s revived his career in recent years, establishing himself as one of La Liga’s better wingers. After starring for Vélez Sarsfield upon a return to Argentina, he earned a move to Celta Vigo, and he’s had two excellent seasons there.

Fernández has yet to see the pitch in Brazil, but then again, he was never expected to get much time. He’s there to fill a very specific role, as a useful substitute. But Argentina have yet to get into a situation in which they need to add a true right winger, someone who can cross and track back. That situation is unlikely to arise on Sunday either, so it's almost certain we won't see Fernández take the field.

Ricardo Álvarez

Internazionale midfielder Ricardo Álvarez started last season in fine form, finally managing to nail down a regular starting spot for the Serie A club for the first time since he joined from Argentine side Vélez Sarsfield in 2011. Alas, he faded as the season wore on, and by its end he found himself on the substitutes’ bench more often than not. Once again it looked like he’d never live up to his true potential.

However, coach Alejandro Sabella saw enough in the playmaker's performances to take him to the World Cup. Perhaps that has as much to do with Álvarez’s tactical versatility as much as his form, as he isn’t exactly your average attacking midfielder. Instead, he’s a hard worker with an industry to match his flair and incisive passing. With the World Cup’s margins so fine, coaches can’t afford to field defensive passengers. Álvarez certainly isn’t one of those. Off the bench, he’s a good option to have.

Rodrigo Palacio

With Argentina's strength up front, Palacio was never going to make the starting XI, but Sabella has used him regularly throughout the tournament as a late-game alternative to his classier colleagues. The Inter man may not have the skill of Messi or the lethality of Agüero, but he's busy, strong, diligent and talented enough to cause tiring defenses some discomfort and link up with his betters.

Though a reliable goalscorer at domestic level over the last few seasons, he's never been prolific for his country and hasn't managed to score yet this tournament; perhaps the best of the chances that has fallen his way, against the Dutch, ended with a limp header into the keeper's grateful arms. He has, in the face of strong competition, the worst haircut in professional football, a shaved-head-plus-thin-ponytail combo known in hairdressing circles as 'The Traumatised Jedi'.

Sergio Agüero

On almost any other team, a healthy Sergio Agüero would be the lynchpin of the attack, the key to everything going forward. But Argentina have Lionel Messi in their possession, and thus Agüero is something of a sideshow, just one more weapon in a dazzling array of attacking options. But give the Manchester City man time and space, and he'll punish you.

Agüero's most significant flaw, of course, is his fragility. That matters more in a long league season, but he's managed to miss two matches of the World Cup with a muscle injury, and hasn't really looked at his best even when he has been fit. Argentina have gotten away with relying on Messi so far, but they won’t be able to get away with that routine forever. If Agüero can step up for the final, they'll be in far better shape, but it's far from clear if he'll even be able to start.

Germany

Manuel Neuer

No goalkeeper in the world does quite as much as Manuel Neuer. While some have followed his lead as a sweeper-keeper, the Bayern Munich man defines the position. No other keeper will ever be found halfway up the pitch heading the ball, no other keeper is as comfortable racing out of the box to make a sliding challenge on a winger. And no other keeper looks quite as ridiculous when they make positioning errors: where the rest of the world might be off by a matter of inches, Neuer makes his mistakes by miles.

But he makes up for his sometimes occasional errors by being the best all-around goalkeeper in the game. His aggressive positioning gives his defense some breathing room and allows him to make saves nobody else can, and his command of the penalty area is impeccable. Good luck, forwards!

Philipp Lahm

It's been a weird year for Philipp Lahm. A combination of injuries and his own versatility have pushed the consensus top right back in the world into defensive midfield at club level. Somehow, that's where he found himself playing for Germany at the start of the World Cup. Which was a little bit strange, since Germany were in desperate need of competent fullbacks.

What makes Lahm such a good player? He's two-footed, a rare commodity in fullbacks, which allows him to deal with both traditional and inside-out wingers as well as provide a solid passing game further up the pitch. He's fast enough to stay with even the quickest players, and his positional play is unmatched. He is, perhaps, not quite dynamic enough to stand out in midfield, but as a fullback, Lahm is peerless. Now that he’s back in his proper position, the Germany defense looks far more robust.

Jérôme Boateng

Is Jérôme Boateng a center back or a fullback? Does it even matter?

Boateng has bounced between center back and right back his entire career, slotting in at left back for a bit of variety, yet here he stands, a regular for Bayern Munich and Germany. Whatever position he plays, Boateng is still plenty good and his versatility is his biggest asset. Big enough for the middle, quick enough for the outside and tidy enough on the ball to make him an asset in either a possession-based team or a more direct one, it’s no wonder Boateng is a near-automatic choice.

Boateng started the tournament at right back, but then moved to the center for the knockout stages. When Joachim Löw is putting together his team for the final, he’ll figure out where he wants everyone else, then slide Boateng into whichever position is still open. That’s not a bad role to have.

Mats Hummels

Mats Hummels defies categorization. The piratical center half combines brilliant defending and swashbuckling raids from the back with an unfortunate tendency towards lackadaisical play, a trait that seems to plague every defender with a penchant for causing havoc at the other end of the pitch. But in the World Cup, at least, Hummels has been a rock, anchoring the back line and scoring two key headers, including the winner against France in the quarterfinal.

With Hummels in such an imperious mood, it's difficult to see a way past him. The only knockout match in which Germany looked at all vulnerable defensively was when he wasn't available versus Algeria. Since then, they've looked unstoppable. Mats Hummels is awesome.

Injury note: Although he was substituted with a tendinitis problem during the semifinal against Brazil, as of Saturday Hummels is still expected to start against Argentina.

Benedikt Höwedes

Is Benedikt Höwedes a center back or a fullback? At this point it’s likely even he doesn’t know anymore.

He’s spent so much time all across the back line — literally, all four positions — that he’s a man without a position, but he does have a home and that’s on the pitch. Be it for club or country, Höwedes keeps finding his way onto the field, even if he ends up in a different position seemingly every match.

Höwedes has started every match this World Cup, featuring at left back. He can be slow at times and he may not get forward the way most fullbacks do, but he is dependable. At this point, dependable is enough for Joachim Löw, who is happy that Höwedes generally keeps the play in front of him, is an asset on crosses and doesn’t give the ball away. It’s not sexy, but it works.

Bastian Schweinsteiger

When Bastian Schweinsteiger’s international career began at the age of 19, no one foresaw his future as one of the best players in the world. In Euro 2004 he was used as a winger, the same position he played at Bayern, and although his performances were commendable, he failed to astonish out wide.

A move to the center of the pitch changed all that. It didn’t take long to adjust, and soon he emerged as a top talent, a star for club and country. Capable of shielding the back line, playing the long diagonal, driving forward, picking up assists and even scoring, Schweinsteiger is the ultimate box-to-box player.

But Schweinsteiger’s World Cup hasn’t gone exactly as planned, with the injury and fitness problems that have dogged him in recent years carrying over into training camp and the tournament. However, it appears he’s played his way back to fitness in the past month and, like the rest of Germany, was excellent against Brazil, building off his impressive performance in the quarterfinal. Now he heads into the final playing his best football of the World Cup.

Sami Khedira

Sami Khedira made his international debut in 2009, months before confirming his rise to footballing stardom with a move from his hometown club Stuttgart to Real Madrid. Since then he's established himself as one of the best box-to-box midfielders around, thanks to his incredible power and tireless industry. He’s as much of a threat going forward as he is a valued defensive contributor.

His talent is indisputable, yet getting to Brazil was no mean feat. His very presence at the World Cup was thrown into doubt with an ACL tear in an international friendly against Italy last November, and he’d only just returned to domestic football before being named in Joachim Löw’s World Cup squad. Fortunately he’s back in fighting fit after his lengthy layoff, and he’ll no doubt be given a starring role in the final.

Thomas Müller

Thomas Müller is a footballer that doesn't make sense. He's not quick. He's not strong. He's not tall. He looks like he was born with an elbow for every joint. He doesn't seem to do very much of anything on the field. And yet he's absolutely and unarguably a brilliant forward, one of the best in the world and perhaps the best at this World Cup.

He describes himself as a Raumdeuter, a "space investigator", and that's as good a description of his unorthodox attacking play as anything. Nose about between defenders, behind them, around them, find little pockets of space, stand in them for a bit, take a pass, move the ball on, scurry from one space to another, suddenly drop out of the awareness of every single defender, then score a goal. Repeat. Repeat again.

What kind of goal? Why, whatever the situation demands. His five goals this tournament have included strikes from two yards and twenty, have mixed falling-backwards tap-ins with flawless penalties, and whether he starts centrally as a nominal striker or wide as a theoretical winger, he remains Germany's most potent goal threat. Even if nobody's entirely sure why.

Toni Kroos

Quietly one of the World Cup's best players before the semifinal, Kroos wasn't so quiet during Germany's 7-1 demolition of Brazil, scoring the third and fourth goals in one of the most lopsided knockout matches ever played. It was fitting reward for his comprehensive demolition of Brazil's rather risible midfield pivot, and a rather nice introduction to this ultra-modern No. 10 for Real Madrid fans, doubtless keeping closest watch on their latest rumored signing.

Kroos has virtually everything. He's a superb crosser, on set pieces and otherwise, possesses a deadly shot, can weight passes perfectly and has the defensive nous to be played deeper in midfield (although this is a bit of a waste). Perhaps his only weaknesses are his speed and strength — he'll never be an elite dribbler — but with the rest of the package, you can excuse the flaws.

Mesut Özil

In South Africa, a 21-year-old Mesut Özil announced himself to the wider world with a series of electrifying performances that propelled Germany to third place and earned him a place on the shortlist for the Golden Ball. Here was the world's next great playmaker: imaginative, quick of thought and foot, able to score a goal as easily and effortlessly as he could create one. A move to Real Madrid followed his performance in 2010, because of course it did.

This time round, the jury is split, as a season of mixed form for country — he even received a few boos from his own fans in a pre-tournament friendly against Chile — and for new club Arsenal, has carried through into the tournament. His defenders will insist that he's playing a less flashy but just as crucial role in a more cautious, more control-centered Germany; his detractors, who are growing louder with every okayish performance, are wondering if the spark, the wit and the confidence are draining slowly away. Certainly, he's been a less thrilling presence this time around. But he retains the faith of Jogi Löw, and he's started every game in the tournament. It would be a major shock if he didn't start the final.

Miroslav Klose

On the field, Miroslav Klose looks like a pretty unremarkable striker. He rarely produces moments of individual brilliance, nor does he involve himself in any inventive build-up play. But don’t be fooled: he’s one of the best poachers international football has ever seen. He may now be 36 years old, but Klose still boasts an unteachable instinct and an aerial ability envied by much younger forwards. He embodies the striker in its purest form; the antithesis to the false nine, a throwback to a bygone age.

He was expected to play nothing more than a cameo role in Brazil, though Klose has surprisingly forced his way into Joachim Löw’s starting lineup. 12 years and numerous goals on from suffering defeat in the his only previous World Cup final, the tournament’s all-time record scorer will look to exorcise the demons of that loss to Brazil in 2002 and finally lift the trophy his enduring performances have deserved.

Roman Weidenfeller

A lot of countries would love to have Roman Weidenfeller as their goalkeeper, but a lot of countries don’t have Manuel Neuer. Weidenfeller has backstopped Borussia Dortmund to a pair of Bundesliga titles and the UEFA Champions League final, at times stringing together great save after great save to keep BVB alive. Despite this, he has just three caps. Such is the nature of being a German goalkeeper right now.

Weidenfeller is tremendous, but it doesn’t matter much. Dethroning Neuer as Germany’s first-choice goalkeeper would be near impossible, so the best Weidenfeller can hope for is a World Cup medal. It’s unlikely he’ll object to that, even if he earns it sitting on the bench.

Ron-Robert Zieler

Imagining a scenario in which Ron-Robert Zieler takes the pitch is a colossal waste of everyone’s time, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Such a scenario probably involves Manuel Neuer picking up an injury on one of his trademark runs out of his box to clear the ball at the center circle, resulting in Javier Mascherano doing god knows what to his face.

Joachim Löw looks to Roman Weidenfeller and he’s not ready. He vomits on his shirt. Löw looks to Zieler. He’s ready. Focused. Intense. Löw shocks the world by putting him into the game ahead of Weidenfeller, then he goes on to make a dozen saves and guide Germany to World Cup glory.

In reality, the Hannover man will probably never play a competitive fixture for Germany. He’s suffered the unfortunate distinction of being born between current first-choice Manuel Neuer and upcoming phenoms Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Bernd Leno. Poor guy.

Kevin Großkreutz

Kevin Großkreutz made a name for himself as a winger, but a series of injuries to Borussia Dortmund fullbacks caused him to fill in at that position over the last couple of seasons. Even though he’s very much an attacking winger with a pretty solid goal-scoring record, he’s been surprisingly competent as a defender, and he’s listed as one on Germany’s squad.

So why hasn’t Joachim Löw used him at all in this tournament? The answer isn’t obvious. Even when choosing to play Philipp Lahm in midfield, Löw turned to central defender Shkodran Mustafi at right back, while playing another central defender, Benedikt Höwedes, at left back for the entire tournament. They offer nothing going forward and look awkward defending wingers.

But, hey, it’s worked. Germany is in the final, after all. Sorry Kevin, we can’t really argue with the results so far.

Matthias Ginter

Matthias Ginter was a U-18, U-19 and U-21 national teamer. He’s been groomed in the Germany system, a product of the overhauled academies for club and country that nation is now reaping the benefits of. Big, strong, smart and good and the ball, Ginter already has 70 appearances for Freiburg and is drawing the interest of many of the world’s biggest clubs.

Ginter hasn’t played in this tournament and that doesn’t figure to change, but at 20 years old, he still has two, if not three World Cups left in him. He’s tipped to be the bedrock of the Germany defense for years to come, but he’ll almost certainly be sitting out this final.

Erik Durm

We’re not quite sure why Erik Durm is in Brazil. He’s very clearly Marcel Schmelzer’s backup at Dortmund, but fitness concerns meant Schmelzer was left behind — despite Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger making the trip. Clearly there were more than sporting issues at play here.

Then there’s the fact that Durm is more of a fullback than the guys Jogi Löw has had playing there for much of the tournament. Yet he’s remained on the bench, further deepening the mystery surrounding why he’s there at all. Perhaps Löw has a grand plan in mind for the final.

Per Mertesacker

In theory, Per Mertesacker has an irretrievable weakness: his pace. In practice, it's not much of a problem at all. Thanks to a combination of sensible defensive organization, Manuel Neuer's tendencies towards sweeper-dom and Mertesacker's almost infallible instincts, the lanky center half has seen his vulnerabilities covered up and his strengths maximized at the heart of Germany's defense.

While Mats Hummels gets most of the praise, Mertesacker has more than done his job whenever he's been called on, mopping up everything in the air and serving as solid cover whenever his partner goes on a whimsical adventure. In a vacuum, Mertesacker's hardly the ideal defender, but in this Germany side he slots right in.

Shkodran Mustafi

If you need evidence of just how insistent Germany coach Jogi Löw was on playing without real fullbacks, consider this: for a good chunk of the tournament his side featured a (bad) center half playing out of position at right back while the world's best right back played in midfield.

That's probably going to be Mustafi's legacy: a man who shouldn't have been playing anywhere in the tournament inexplicably getting playing time, causing Germany huge problems until he got injured against Algeria. That injury allowed Philipp Lahm to move to right back, thus triggering Germany’s shift into the team we’d been expecting throughout the tournament. It's never a good look when your biggest contribution to a World Cup is being subbed off, but so it goes for Mustafi.

André Schürrle

It's clear that Joachim Löw sees André Schürrle as a sort of super-sub, someone to turn to when the game opens up and his direct running and ferocious speed become even more useful. And that's fine, because as a substitute, Schürrle is deadly: the Chelsea man got a key extra-time goal against Algeria and grabbed the final two in Germany's 7-1 semifinal mauling of Brazil, and it's not out of the question that he adds to his tally in the final.

Schürrle isn't perfect, as evidenced by a poor showing against France, in which a pair of key misses put the Germans under far more pressure than they should have been. But he does his job well enough, and he could yet prove vital to his team's hopes of lifting the World Cup for the fourth time.

Lukas Podolski

Having picked up 116 caps since making his international debut a decade ago, Lukas Podolski is one of Die Mannschaft’s most experienced heads. Only the legendary Lothar Matthäus and Miroslav Klose have pulled on the Germany shirt more often. But if Podolski is to add to his tally in the World Cup final, it’ll probably be from the bench, with coach Joachim Löw having used him sparingly in Brazil so far.

Podolski doesn’t have the technical skill or ingenuity of Germany’s starting attackers, but as an impact player, he’s a great option to have. Quick, direct and with an excellent international goalscoring record, he can be a big threat when his legs are fresh. He’s also a clinical finisher, and the closest thing Germany have to a natural striker behind the 36-year-old Klose. If Germany are in need of a goal, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Podolski thrown on.

Julian Draxler

Julian Draxler was pegged for stardom before his 17th birthday, and he’s done his part to live up to it. He was named to Germany’s provisional squad for Euro 2012 at the age of 18 and was a 13-goal scorer when he was 19. He’s now 20, with 12 caps to his name, and interest from the likes of Bayern Munich and Arsenal has come as no surprise — perhaps the shock is that he remains at Schalke.

As good as Draxler may be already, and as tantalizing as his talent is, he’s still yet to become a regular contributor for Germany’s first team. His 14-minute cameo at the end of the semifinals is the only action he’s seen this World Cup and he doesn’t figure to play a part in the final. Draxler may offer Germany a glimpse of their future, but they need to make it through this match first.

Mario Götze

On a team full of proven stars, from Philipp Lahm, to Miroslav Klose, to Thomas Müller, to Bastian Schweinsteiger, it was Mario Götze who drew the spotlight leading into the tournament. This was going to be his breakout party — a chance to show why Bayern Munich paid €37 million for him last summer and why he could be the future of Germany.

But the World Cup hasn’t gone exactly as planned for Götze. That quick, incisive play marked by beautiful dribbling, sublime passes and even goals has been missing. They’ve been replaced by hesitancy and conservatism, a rarity from the 22-year-old. He was relegated to the bench in both the quarterfinals and semifinals — hardly a disaster for the team, considering the talent Germany have, but a bit of an individual letdown. Of course, that could all change should he be able to contribute something mesmerizing to the final.

Christoph Kramer

While Christoph Kramer was just brought into this Germany team to serve as an emergency midfielder in case all of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira and Philipp Lahm got hurt, it’s likely we’re going to see a lot more of him in the future. He had an excellent season on loan at Borussia Mönchengladbach and he's set to reprise that role next season after being farmed out again by parent club Bayer Leverkusen.

Kramer’s a big, strong defensive midfielder who’s also pretty proficient technically — in other words, perfect to replace a Bender. But as good as he is, you’ll only see him if something’s gone horribly wrong or shockingly right, and Germany are either totally screwed or five goals up.

How they got here

Argentina

Unlike Germany, who had a few ups and downs before finally starting to turn the screws in their quarterfinal against France, Argentina started off rather unconvincingly — and have yet to truly change people’s minds.

The albiceleste first came up against Bosnia and Herzegovina, playing their first ever World Cup match. Apparently Alejandro Sabella was frightened by this prospect, and changed his tactics in order to field five defenders. Argentina spent much of the match looking the weaker side, yet an own goal and a moment of magic from Lionel Messi gave them the 2-1 win.

Moments of magic from Messi were to become something of a theme for Argentina. Next up was Iran, not a side that many thought would dominate the World Cup. Yet solid defensive play kept Argentina at bay, and again they required Messi to bail them out, with a magnificent goal in the 91st minute.

Their final group stage opponent was Nigeria, a matchup that proved to be the most exciting of Argentina’s matches thus far. This time Messi struck early ... but Nigeria had the gall to strike back. Less than a minute later, in fact. Messi put the albiceleste back in front before the break, but Ahmed Musa put in his second two minutes after the restart. Then Marco Rojo hit the back of the net three minutes later, and Argentina had their 3-2 win.

Next up, a game against Switzerland, which morphed into one of the most frustrating matches ever watched by neutrals. Switzerland were determined to defend, and again, it took Messi ages to find enough freedom to be able to make a difference. This time he turned provider, setting up Ángel di María to score the game’s only goal in the 118th minute. Things could have been different had a late Swiss header not cannoned back off the post, but fate and physics work in mysterious ways, and Argentina were on to the semis.

Argentina then turned the script upside down. Against Belgium, they scored early — and it wasn’t Messi but rather Gonzalo Higuaín. A rejigged starting lineup provided a more defensively-minded side, one whose organization and coherence were able to hold off the Red Devils.

Sabella kept that defensive approach for the semifinal with Netherlands, providing a match that could only thrill those most dedicated to analyzing tactical nuances. The caution on both sides made for a tense match, one that ultimately ended with just two shots on goal. Javier Mascherano provided the biggest thrill of the match with a perfect tackle to deny Arjen Robben, thus sending the game through to extra time and then penalties. Sergio Romero got to play the hero, saving two Dutch shots and putting Argentina through to the final.

It will be their last chance to convince the world that they’re deserving.

Germany

Based on Germany’s first World Cup match, it might have been easy to see them as a lock for the final. Thomas Müller scored the first goal in the 12th minute. By the 37th minute, Germany were up 2-0, and Portugal were down to ten. In the end, Müller had a hat-trick, Mats Hummels had contributed another and Germany started off their campaign with an easy 4-0 victory.

Ghana, however, proved to be a more difficult nut to crack, although that match provided one of the more fun games in what proved to be an altogether thrilling group stage. Germany scored, Ghana responded almost immediately. The Black Stars pulled in front, but Germany came back, and it finished all square at 2-2.

And so Germany went into their final group stage game with the United States with both sides knowing that a draw would see them through to the next round. Germany, however, just couldn’t help themselves. Germany came away with just a 1-0 win, despite thoroughly outplaying the United States, and Müller added another to his goalscoring tally.

Fast-forward to the knockout stages, where everyone gave short shrift to Algeria's chances. Germany seemed astonished that the Fennec Foxes did not cower in their towering presence, and instead got forward immediately, easily splitting the fragile German defense. If it weren’t for the antics of sweeper-keeper Manuel Neuer, Germany might’ve been sitting at home right now. Instead they broke hearts in the most devastating fashion, André Schürrle scoring the opening goal two minutes into added extra time. The eventual result was a 2-1 win.

That victory pitted Germany against France in what promised to be a lively affair. Instead, Hummels headed in the only goal in the 13th minute, leaving France to listlessly chase the game.

However, everyone forgot about France’s disappointing performance by the time Germany had reached the half-hour mark of their next match. By that point, Brazil were down by five goals, and were desperately cursing FIFA for refusing to overturn Thiago Silva’s foolish yellow card. Germany looked as though they were playing against a bunch of 8-year-olds that had yet to be trained on the finer aspects of the game, such as defending. They went on to score two more in the second half, with Oscar’s stoppage time goal not even qualifying as a "consolation."

7-1. In a semifinal.

Be afraid, Argentina

The Video Preview

What to watch for

Germany were supposed to be the well-organized machine. Argentina were supposed to be the wild squad full of players looking to get forward. But no one told the coaches to follow the script, so we’ve made it with to the World Cup final with the two sides playing each other’s roles.

Joachim Löw has the overabundance of attacking talent, on full display when they put seven past Brazil, with players getting forward from all over the pitch. Meanwhile, Alejandro Sabella has managed the seemingly impossible, making Argentina a compact, responsible team that hasn’t allowed a goal in 343 minutes.

Argentina’s defense has yet to face such a potent attack, however. They stifled Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands, but none of those teams had central midfielders that could pop up all over the pitch like Bastian Schweinsteiger or Sami Khedira. They didn’t have such an incredible poacher in Miroslav Klose, now the World Cup’s all-time leading goalscorer, nor did they boast of a the unpredictability brought by Thomas Müller.

The beauty of Germany’s attack has been the way every player gets involved on almost every inch of the pitch — right down to sweeper-keeper Manuel Neuer. It makes them extraordinarily difficult to defend, as tracking and marking players becomes nearly impossible when they play with pace.

But Germany haven’t been flawless in this tournament. They were slowed by the United States and came to a halt against Algeria, while they hardly throttled France. As dangerous as the Germans can be, that is really only at speed. When they slow, they verge on ordinary.

Argentina have to slow down Germany.

Fortunately for Sabella’s team, they are well-equipped to do just that. Part of that is simply having Lionel Messi. The Netherlands showed that Messi can be contained, but doing so requires committing a midfielder to doing nothing more than mind the superstar. If Germany attempt that trick, it means one less player they can throw into the attack. Even if they don’t, they will have to be more diligent about the numbers they put forward and concentrate on staying more narrow. Such an approach will not just limit their attack, but slow them down and shrink the field, all of which plays right into Argentina’s hands.

Since the quarterfinals, Argentina have also shown the capability and willingness to defend in numbers, keeping both fullbacks at home rather than letting them go forward as they did in the first four matches of the tournament. Germany have struggled to break down teams that packed players behind the ball, as evidenced by their difficulty getting in behind Algeria for the first 90 minutes.

With two defensive midfielders — most likely Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia, although Fernando Gago could step back in — protecting the back line, Argentina can reduce space in the center of the pitch, forcing Germany to the wings. Not only is their attack less effective out wide, they’ll be hesitant to play in such a manner, lest they get exploited by Messi on the counterattack.

Argentina’s tactics will force Germany to make difficult choices. How do they defend Messi? Where do they attack? Do they dare push the pace, opening up space for a devastating counterattack? Each choice involves a risk for the Germans, one they’ll be reluctant to take with one hand on the trophy. The albiceleste certainly have the means to stop Germany. The question is whether they’ll be able to start anything themselves.

Really, it’s no surprise that Argentina have scored just two goals in their last three games. As brilliant as Messi has been at times, he’s been left on an island. Teammates have almost made a habit of wasting his passes or failing to take the space he creates for them. When Netherlands committed two men to slowing the superstar, the rest of the team should have had more opportunity to take chances. Instead, they could barely get a decent look at goal.

Argentina may have to pin all their hopes on the return of Ángel di María alongside the improved health of Sergio Agüero. Neither have been spectacular in this tournament, but both are true stars, vital to their clubs’ success — and, previously, to their country’s. Sabella’s team was meant to feature the fantastic foursome, with these two alongside Messi and Gonzalo Higuaín. Should either, or preferably both, be able to play, Argentina’s attack may finally click into place.

The narrative around Argentina has changed. Once a team full of attackers who couldn’t sort out how to defend, Argentina are now organized at the back and conservative when going forward. And so now Messi, once the man accused of being unable to replicate club form for his country, has drug his side up to the final. Yet worry still remains as to whether he’ll be able to do enough.

At first glance, Germany have no such problems. The glow of their 7-1 victory over Brazil still hovers above them. They appear to be the golden boys — yet not so long ago, they were nearly brought down by Algeria. Argentina are set to look a lot like the Fennec Foxes, only better.

Will the golden boys shine once more? Will Messi be able to drag out one final bit of magic? It’s time to find out.

* * *

Come Monday morning, the world will be a slightly different place. That might sound overly grandiose, but working on the assumption that soccer and the path its myriad stories take is something that's of interest, then consider the following. If Argentina win, then they'll have completed their trifecta of titles in the spiritual heart of their nearest and dearest neighbours, a face-slap the size of a continent. In the process, the best player of his generation will have won the only trophy missing from his honors list, which just happens to be the most important trophy of them all, in the process sealing his own place at the very top of the pantheon.

Or if Germany triumph, then they'll become the first European side to win the tournament in South America. They'll draw level with Italy on four titles, and Brazil's penta will be in their sights. More than that, though, the process of rebuilding that began after the embarrassment of Euro 2000, which saw the powerbrokers of German football tear up their country's youth systems and start from scratch, will be utterly vindicated. This would be a triumph fourteen years in the making, the culmination of a process of self-reformation that stands as an example of how to do things right.

These are the two futures on whose edge we stand: one will crumble into the nothingness; the other will snap into being. It's perhaps unfair that this one game, a mere ninety minutes, can carry such significance, but then that's the way sport works. The rarer the opportunity, the greater the import. And we've been waiting four years for a game this big; we'll wait another four for the next one. That's why World Cup finals are brilliant, even when they're terrible. Nothing matters like a World Cup final matters.

Contributors: Graham MacAree, Kevin McCauley, Ryan Rosenblatt, Jack Sargeant, Kirsten Schlewitz, Andi Thomas Editor: Kirsten Schlewitz Design / Development: Josh Laincz, Graham MacAree, Ramla Mahmood

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