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.
How they got here
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.
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
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.