IT MIGHT not be the way Brazilians wanted the World Cup to end, but tonight’s final between Argentina and Germany will provide a nerve-jangling climax to arguably the best tournament in history – even though the goals that have lit it up may not flow.
While the hosts are still coming to terms with their 7-1 semi-final humiliation by Germany, Argentina and Germany are gearing up to settle old scores
According to his agent, this will be Argentine coach Alejandro Sabella’s last match in charge – win or lose – and he will leave the job a national hero if his team triumph in the third final between the European and South American heavyweights.
But whether this match is a high-scoring thriller like their 1986 showdown in Mexico City, which Argentina won 3-2, or more resembles the dire spectacle of West Germany’s 1-0 1990 win in Rome, it is difficult to predict.
The trend in recent finals has been for tight, cagey, defensive games with narrow, low-scoring victories and those finals of 1986 and 1990 reflect the dividing line in the finals story.
The six finals up to and including 1986 produced 27 goals, the six since 1990, when Argentina became the first team to fail to score in the final, have produced nine.
And there is every indication that, paradoxically, this goal-laden World Cup – which had produced 167 goals before last night’s third-place play-off and could beat the all-time record of 171 set in France in 1998 – will be won by defensive steel rather than attacking brilliance.
Both teams have goalkeepers in the form of their lives, with Germany’s Manuel Neuer probably the best in the world, and Argentina’s Sergio Romero putting aside his season on the bench at AS Monaco with some impressive displays, not least his two stops in the penalty shoot-out win over the Dutch on Wednesday.
In front of Neuer, Benedict Hoewedes has played every minute of the competition at left-back and Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng have looked impressive in the centre of defence.
And since coach Joachim Löw re-positioned skipper Philipp Lahm at right-back rather than midfield, the defence has been even tighter.
Argentina’s rearguard, though, has been even more impressive.
They have not conceded a goal for three successive matches since a 3-2 win over Nigeria in their last Group F match on 25 June, and Sabella can also call on a solid, well-established formation.
Romero has gained in confidence and stature as the tournament has progressed, while right-back Pablo Zabaleta, centre-back Ezequiel Garay and defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano have all been impressive as they have played every minute of every match.
There is, of course, another Argentine player who has started every match for for his country – Lionel Messi.
The world’s No.1 player has enjoyed a satisfactory rather than scintillating tournament so far, scoring four times in Argentina’s three group wins against Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria, but failing to find the net against Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands in the knockout stages.
And while Argentina have struggled for goals since qualifying, with one against Switzerland from Angel di Maria and one against Belgium from Gonzalo Higuain, Germany have flourished, with ten in the last three games.
Thomas Müller, who scored a hat-trick in the group stage against Portugal, now has five goals, but their total of 17 has been spread around the side.
Miroslav Klose, now the top scorer of all time in the World Cup with 16 goals, has two, Andre Schürrle three, defender Hummels and Toni Kroos two, while Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira and Mario Götze have also found the net. But they have yet to come up against a defence as formidable as Argentina’s.
Lothar Matthäus, the last German skipper to lift the World Cup in 1990, said last week: “There is an old saying in Germany that defences win titles, while the attack wins the glory.”
Those words could yet be borne out at the Maracana this evening.