- Germany have the better team, but Mesut Oezil’s form is a worry
- Argentina have enough ability to win, but do they feel inferior?
- Many of Germany’s stars have failed before on big nights
- Argentina need to forget emotion or risk a Brazil-style meltdown
On the day of the match of matches, the final of finals, I’m surprised at the consensus that suggests that Germany will sweep to glory at the Maracana tonight. Yes, Joachim Loew’s team are favourites, but Argentina have the weaponry to turn the Berlin fanmeile into the world’s largest wake.
While the Rio decider has been shaped as Man v. Machine, Lionel Messi v. The System, there’s a tendency to reduce the Argentinians to one man and assume that the individuals who comprise the German system are mere cogs in the machine. There’s an argument that suggests that Argentina are too dependent on Messi and that the German system is less susceptible to individual caprice and, thus, the most likely winner. Yet, that ignores talented Argentinians like Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, and Javier Mascherano and pretends that Germany can get away with the complete non-performance of Mesut Oezil, once the most important cog in Loew’s machine.
Oezil just hasn’t performed in Brazil. He has provided few penetrative passes and has failed to impose himself on any of the previous six games. In the first 10 minutes of the semi-final, he jumped out of tackles in a manner that hinted he was protecting himself from injury. Nobody expects him to be a ball-winner, but he shrunk from physical confrontation in a way that said he had no intention of being even a presence when the Brazilians had possession.
Germany could afford a passenger on Tuesday, but I’ll be surprised if they can afford that on Sunday. Marco Reus would have ensured the banishment of Oezil to the bench by now, but his sad absence through injury could yet come back to haunt the Germans. Oezil seems bereft of confidence. His pathetic attempt to beat a mentally broken Julio Cesar for an eighth goal near the end of the semi-final summed up the Arsenal player’s plight. If you cannot find some confidence with your team 7-0 up, when can you find it?
So, while the historic humbling of Brazil will imbue the Germans with belief, they may be taking on the Argentinians with 10 men unless Oezil recaptures something of his old self. That’s not the only concern. Mats Hummels may not be fully fit. While he sometimes impersonates Errol Flynn, all swashbuckling purpose and glamour, he’s been known to forget to bring a sword to battle and has been a weak link for Dortmund in the past. In Brazil, however, he’s been a star. Given the relatively high line that Loew likes to employ, the sight of Per Mertesacker, a Diplodocus among defenders, would have the South American velociraptors salivating in anticipation of a feast. Jerome Boateng and Benedik Hoewedes are also vulnerable to the tricky Argentinian ball-players.
Expectation also has to be managed. Philipp Lahm, Toni Kroos, Thomas Mueller, Manuel Neuer, and Bastian Schweinsteiger were among the Bayern side that collapsed under the weight of their own hubris in the 2012 Champions League final in expectant Munich. Germany also lost a European Championship semi-final to Italy a month later in Warsaw. These players have form for underachieving when favourites. Those doubts won’t disappear until Lahm holds the World Cup aloft.
As for the South Americans, well they come into the game with lots to gain. Man-for-man they are not as good as the Germans. But they have Messi. They’ve played a pretty grim, attritional style of football to make the final, but will need a bit of magic to defeat the Germans.
Germany have played well ever since Lahm reverted to full back against France. As a result, the helter-skelter games with Ghana and Algeria can be discounted when looking for tactical pointers. Argentina will sit tight and hope for a break. It just might work. However, they’ll have to conquer any inferiority complex that they might possess from the 4-0 battering they took from Loew’s men in Cape Town four years ago. Furthermore, all the over-emotional talk of “the Argentinian people taking us to the final” needs to be just that: talk. If Messi, who tweeted the platitude on Sunday morning, really believes that the overwrought longing of his countrymen had any responsibility for his team’s progress, then Argentina could walk into a knife – just as Brazil did on Tuesday.
For Argentina, just getting to the final in the back yard of their greatest rivals is a triumph. Subconsciously, is that enough? For Germany, defeat now will condemn a fine generation of players to accusations of mental weakness, to underachievement in spite of their talents. The massacre in the Mineirao obliges them to win on Sunday. They have the talent to do so, but they’ve enough weaknesses to poop their own party. Mesut Oezil, your time is now.