Which Lionel Messi will arrive at the Maracana on Sunday? The one who after a quiet first half, jinked past Bosnia-Herzegovina players to score a wonder goal or the one who was kept quiet by Holland’s defensive midfielders with its defenders mopping up any ball Nigel de Jong, Wesley Sneijder or Jordy Clasie may have missed?
“For me, he is the number one in the world because he can decide a match on his own... Leo has rescued us in a few matches but we can’t just rely on him. The team should be there to support him just as we were against Belgium, when he controlled the game with everyone’s help,” said Javier Mascherano, Argentina’s midfield general.
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The point Mascherano made about Messi’s role in the quarterfinal against Belgium was important. On a hot afternoon in Brasilia — the fourth straight game Argentina played at that time as opposed to Brazil who kicked-off only their pre-quarter final at 1pm — Messi started as a frontline partner to Gonzalo Higuain but dropped deep near the centre-circle. His ability to keep the ball meant it would almost always draw two or three Belgium players and disrupt their defensive shape. “Messi helped us breathe,” said Alejandro Sabella after that game.
Yet against Netherlands, Messi was kept quiet for most of the two hours. Against Switzerland and Iran too but in both games, Messi conjured one decisive moment of magic that was enough. How Germany deal with the Messi threat and how Messi reacts would be crucial to the outcome of Sunday’s final.
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It is possible Bastian Schweinsteiger would be given the primary responsibility of keeping Messi in check. There is a precedent here in Lothar Matthaues marking Diego Maradona in the 1986 final. But it is unlikely Germany coach Joaquim Loew would leave it all to his industrious and intelligent midfielder. Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos too would be called upon to ensure Messi does not go through the space between the midfield and defence. The Germans prefer playing a high line anyway and if Messi breaks or finds a teammate in space even Manuel Neuer’s outfield skills may not be enough.
Germany will also press deep in opposition territory and that should increase the degree Argentina’s midfield may have in finding Messi. Again there is a bit of history in the way West Germany approached the 1986 final though in those days no team defended as high as Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Loew’s boys do.
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With most of the players holding day jobs in Europe, they know each other’s game inside out. Most of those lining up at Maracana were present in the quarterfinal between the teams in South Africa where Germany counter-attacked past Argentina. Barring Per Metesacker, nine out of the 10 from Germany look set to start the final and of the seven from Argentina, only Maxi Rodriguez and Sergio Aguero may begin on the bench.
In 1986, Maradona twice managed to shrug off West Germany’s attention. The first was when he located Hector Enrique who found Jorge Valdano for the second goal. The next time, Maradona stamped his authority on the final was with a pass for Jorge Burruchaga that fetched the matchwinner. Will Messi manage something similar or will it be a moment of excellence we have come to expect from this little man who played with happy feet the last time Argentina came to Maracana?
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