Sunday, December 17, 2017


As Germany, Argentina prepare to face off in final


ON THE GO: Argentina’s captain Lionel Messi, No. 10, and Netherlands midfielder Nigel de Jong vie for the ball during the semi-final at The Corinthians Arena in Sao Paulo on Wednesday. —Photos: AFP

Mark Fraser

 It’s certain, just as there has been throughout the World Cup, that there will be significant interest in today’s Brazil 2014 FIFA World Cup third-place match between the hosts and the Netherlands in Brasilia.

But expectedly, that encounter has the feeling of a sideshow to the main event, the reason for almost a month-long football feeding frenzy (Luis Suarez pun not intended), and the culmination of all that exciting entertainment.

I’m not suggesting that the third-place game is meaningless; (I am fairly confident Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal would beg to differ) most people I’m sure would want to see how Brazil rebound from an incredible 7-1 trouncing at the hands of Germany, who face Leo Messi’s Argentina in tomorrow’s final for the most coveted football prize of all.

The motivation is there for Brazil more than their opponents; the Seleção must feel the need to save face after their meltdown against the Germans minus two valuable players...the effervescent Neymar and captain influential Thiago Silva.

For the Netherlands it’s more about a positive signoff. It might make for more relaxed, open football than a grinding, goalless semi against the Argentinians where the backline of the Dutch 5-3-2 system ran into Argentina’s 4-3-3, which sometimes felt more like 4-5-1. The result? Midfield was cancelled out, reducing the number of chances in the game.

That’s not going to happen tomorrow. The Germans are solid favourites, and rightfully so, because of their current form and confidence. They only once required extra time in the knockout stage, have a settled first XI, and have looked comfortable against hitherto unbeaten France and Brazil after being given a run for their money by a motivated Algeria.

Argentina have twice been taken to extra time and survived a penalty shootout with a confident showing against the Dutch in the semis on Wednesday. They have a day less than Germany to prepare for the final, while there are fitness issues in the team, most notably the uncertainty surrounding a key attacker in Angel Di Maria.

Those may not even be the most telling issues. To me, Germany’s third meeting with Argentina in a World Cup final (Diego Maradona’s Argentina won in 1986; Juergen Klinsmann’s Germany won in 1990) will come down to the match up.

I’m willing to bet, as close as I can get to a sure thing, that there will be no “chessboard football”. German coach Joachim Loew will almost certainly stick to his high backline and pressing football, mixed in with some of that good ol’ German rigidity in midfield. The France quarter-final was perhaps as close as he has ever come to finding a balance between the two, and it worked almost perfectly.

The other question critical to this match stems from the sometimes inconsistent German defence. Can Messi and Argentina exploit the space likely to be left by the Germans due to their high backline their possession-based game? The South Americans will be tempted to counter-attack, and the lightning footwork of Messi provides their best chance. How Germany deal with Messi could determine where they finish.

Finally, outside of tactics, one statistic that has protruded from the World Cup like a sore thumb is the lack of comebacks in the tournament. Only seven of 62 matches played so far have seen the team conceding first produce a win.

Netherlands have done it three times—against Spain, Australia (group stage) and Mexico (Round of 16)—and no one else managed it more than once. In the knockout stage, only Netherlands have tasted victory after falling behind.

Germany did fall behind once in the competition after taking the lead against Ghana and rebounded to steal a point at 2-2. Argentina’s defence has improved as the tournament progressed, and they have not had to come from behind so far, and their ability to do so if they concede first is crucial to their chances.

Half the excitement of waiting impatiently for the final of such a gripping tournament is having answers to all the questions surrounding these evenly matched teams and fitting finalists. The competition has so far managed to keep football at the forefront, which is quite an achievement in the face of a number of controversies—waves of public protests, player security, Suarez’s bite on Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini, Neymar’s injury, a tragic overpass collapse, yet another FIFA ticket scandal and more.

In the end, it’s an unenviable position to have to predict this final, but I will step out on a limb and go with the formbook, which predicts a German triumph. Notwithstanding my obvious bias in the matter, Germany seem to be peaking right on time and not an easy prospect to face.

There’s not much in it, though. Argentina can certainly spring a surprise with a little Messi magic and more of that teamwork we saw on Wednesday against Netherlands, with Javier Mascherano marshalling a solid midfield. If the match lives up to its billing, then we’re in for a treat.