After a wild tournament filled with upsets, comebacks and one of the most surprising scorelines in soccer history, the 2014 World Cup will conclude this weekend in somewhat predictable fashion with traditional world powers Argentina and Germany squaring off in Sunday’s title game (3 p.m., ABC) at the Estádio Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
From the start, those two squads were considered two of the favorites to win the World Cup -- but not the favorite. Brazil, of course, was expected to take home its sixth title -- a belief many people held until superstar Neymar got hurt and the host nation was absolutely dismantled by Germany, 7-1, in the semifinals.
While that final score sent shockwaves throughout the world, it also showed just how much of a force this German team can be as it has steamrolled its way way to a record eighth World Cup final.
But standing in the way of its fourth title is Lionel Messi, considered by many to be the best player in the world and leading ESPN broadcaster Jon Champion to dub Sunday’s final “Messi vs. The Machine.”
Of course, there are more storylines at play here. Let’s break it down in this tale of the tape for what figures to be an exciting end to an exciting tournament:
Road to Rio
After winning the “Group of Death” that featured the United States, Ghana and Portugal, Germany picked up one-goal victories over Algeria and France before smashing Brazil. After rolling through a weak Group F unbeaten and untied, Argentina scraped past a couple of untested teams (Switzerland and Belgium) before needing penalty kicks to beat Netherlands in the semifinals.
On a loaded German team that has four players nominated for the World Cup’s Golden Ball (given to the tournament’s best performer) -- Mats Hummels, Toni Kross, Thomas Muller and captain Philipp Lahm -- it’s hard to pick just one. But it’s been Muller that’s carried much of the offensive load, with the Bayern Munich attacker logging five goals and three assists. Messi, meanwhile, is in a class of his own -- but all four of his World Cup goals came in the group stage. Can Messi find the magic again and carry Argentina to its third title and first since another superstar -- Diego Maradona -- did the same in 1986?
No European team has ever won a World Cup played in the Americas, so to get Germany to the finals -- where they are now favored to win -- is a huge achievement for manager Joachim Low, a protégé of current U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Argentina head man Alejandro Sabella should be commended that his team has only given up three goals through six tournament games, but the offense hasn’t taken off like many thought it would.
Partially lost in the madness of Germany’s 7-1 rout of Brazil was a remarkable achievement from Miroslav Klose, who broke the World Cup scoring record with his 16th all-time goal. The 36-year-old striker has had a more limited role during this tournament, but having the best goalscorer in World Cup history at your disposal is a terrific option for Germany. Speaking of World Cup veterans, 30-year-old Javier Mascherano has been extremely valuable in the center of Argentina’s underrated defense. But will the three-time World Cup veteran be at full strength after taking a serious blow to the head and later tearing his anus (seriously) while making a potentially game-saving tackle on Netherlands star Arjen Robben late in the semifinal matchup?
Style of play
Germany has been the most effective offensive team in Brazil, using a strong possession game and attacking down the center of the field to create loads of scoring chances. Argentina has played more conservative at times, with Sabella starting five in the back in the first game, while relying on the one-on-one offensive brilliance of Messi and Angel Di Maria, who’s hoping to play Sunday after missing the semifinal game with a thigh injury.
After beating the host team in epic fashion, Germany seems almost destined to finish the World Cup by holding up another trophy. Argentina has failed to live up to expectations in recent decades and Messi, despite all of his success with FC Barcelona, has struggled internationally -- which makes this year’s run that much more exciting.
These two teams have met in the World Cup finals twice before, with Argentina beating West Germany in 1986 and West Germany returning the favor four years later. More recently, Germany destroyed Argentina, 4-0, in the quarterfinals of the last World Cup.
Germany might hold most of the advantages and be the better team … but there’s something to be said about the best player in the world playing a championship game on his home continent.
Argentina 2, Germany 1