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Have a ball tonight

Argentina have won the World Cup twice; Germany have won it three times. Argentina have lost the final twice; Germany have lost it three times. A mighty symmetry balances the last two teams standing ahead of the 2014 World Cup final in Maracana.

A World Cup that exploded like a box of fireworks in the group stage has been dampened in the knockout rounds. Tension, fear of defeat, fatigue and injuries have all played their part. Except in one game. That was Germany’s historic 7-1 massacre of hosts Brazil in Belo Horizonte last Tuesday.

The magnificence of that performance, with a militaristic salvo of five goals in the first 29 minutes, is one reason for Germany’s status as favourites in Maracana. There are others:

Thomas Mueller, with five goals, is the leading scorer remaining in the finals; he needs two goals to overtake James Rodriguez of Colombia and become the first player ever hailed as leading marksman in two successive Cups;

Miroslav Klose, with 16 goals, is the record all-time scorer in Cup history; and

Four German players (Mueller, captain Philipp Lahm, playmaker Toni Kroos and centre-back Mats Hummels) are among the 10 nominees for the Golden Ball for the finest player in the finals.

This is all heady stuff and adds to the challenge for coach Joachim Loew in bringing his team back down to ground level and building them up again after the triumph over battered and baffled Brazil.

Loew confronts a test of his own. He stepped up from assistant to Juergen Klinsmann after Germany finished third in 2006 but is now in his fourth tournament without a prize to call his own. Germany have won nothing since the European title in 1996 and that is too long for fans.

Much has been said and written about the German system, which has brought players such as Mueller, the magnificent Manuel Neuer, Kroos, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira through from the youth set-up. But, as illustrated by Bayern Munich’s defeat by Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final, systems and formulae are not infallible.

This is good news for Argentina. Germany have produced erratic progress to the final: they began with a four-goal dismissal of Portugal, then were less than impressive against Ghana, the United States and Algeria. It was in beating France 1-0 in the quarterfinals that they began to pick themselves up again.

Argentina have grown from game to game. Every performance has brought more commitment, cohesion and discipline — from group victories over Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria to knockout dismissals of Switzerland, Belgium and Holland on penalties.

Argentina generate a team concept very different from the German model. In the South Americans’ case, everything is built round releasing captain Lionel Messi for that one split-second of freedom that creates the winning strike for himself or a team-mate (albeit only eight of them in six games compared with Germany’s 17).

Against Switzerland in the quarterfinals, that decisive team-mate was the outstanding Angel di Maria but a thigh muscle tear may rule him out of the final.

Fortunately, Argentina expect to have striker Sergio Aguero fit to return and he has the quicksilver potential to make life awkward for Hummels and Jerome Boateng in the centre of the German defence.

Above all, Argentina boast Messi. For his admirers, destiny is calling. World Cup achievement has never been an essential CV item for players in the past.

George Best’s talent transcended the World Cup. The great Alfredo di Stefano, who died this past week, went to the finals only once and then never played because of injury. But for some odd, illogical way this demand is applied to Messi.

Perhaps this is because he needs to emulate the achievements of Diego Maradona to earn similar adulation.

The snag for Messi is that, unknown back home, he went to Barcelona at 13 whereas Maradona captivated Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors before heading off to Barcelona (and then Napoli). Hence Messi serves an unfair apprenticeship.

Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella does not utilise Messi as do Barcelona. But he is not surrounded by Barcelona team-mates or their style credo. Hence Sabella deploys him much further upfield so as to focus his talent in the area of greatest danger.

Uncertainty also attends the occasion in terms of security. The justice ministry has ordered a doubling of police and troop cover in Rio to around 26,000 as more than 200,000 Argentinians flood in, almost all without tickets.

Earlier, Maracana witnessed various incursions by ticketless fans from Argentina, Chile and Colombia, so the authorities are taking no chances.

The giant sambadrome that hosts the annual tourism extravaganza, the Rio Carnival, has been opened up for the camper vans from Argentina and is already awash with blue-and-white flags.

President Dilma Rousseff, after much uncertainty, agreed to present the trophy to the winners. But that was when Brazil were still motoring through the tournament and no one could conceive that they would not triumph.

She may now be wondering, secretly, how much damage her re-election prospects later this year will incur from being seen presenting to Argentina the cup that should have been Brazil’s.

Neymar has said he will be cheering for Argentina, in support of Barcelona club-mates Messi and Javier Mascherano. He will be in a tiny minority.

Brazil’s anger at the semi-final horror was not directed at the victorious Germans but at their own players and coaching staff. A win for Germany would be some minor vindication for Brazil.

Messi will by far be the most talented individual on the grand stage that is Maracana. Whether he can be more than a match for an outstanding team is the crux of the issue.

Germany may be favourites but, after the jaw-dropping events in Belo Horizonte this past week, prediction is an even more risky World Cup game than ever.


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