Wheeler: Best Team vs. Best Player in World Cup Final
7/12/2014 8:57:24 PM
4-0. July 3, 2010. FIFA World Cup Quarterfinals. Germany and Argentina in Cape Town, South Africa. We turned up for a football match. We witnessed a massacre. Four years and 10 days later, the re-match. This time it's for the FIFA World Cup.
I could have sworn I witnessed the future World Cup winners that day. I just wouldn't have thought they would have had to wait four long years for the chance to be crowned World Champions. Germany was that good. Argentina was not even close in any facet of the game. German midfield dominance, well-worked goals, straightforward finishes and Lionel Messi was a ghost. The better team beat the best player that day. There is very little reason to believe the script will be flipped Sunday.
The Maracana is an appropriate venue for a Germany-Argentina re-match as such. Few are backing Argentina's chances, and rightfully so. Likewise, few considered Uruguay worthy challengers to Brazil in the 1950 World Cup final; the last World Cup hosted by Brazil and last final at the Maracana. Uruguay shocked the world that day. 1-0 was the final. Argentina will look to do the same, which would deliver a similar blow to their rival, Brazil. Winning a World Cup on Brazilian soil while the natives exposed as fraudulent tournament contenders would cast an even deeper cut to the already gaping wounds felt by the nation.
Brazilian support of Germany will be popular amidst the sea of blue and white that has descended upon Rio. Other than venue, what has changed in four years since the German demolition of Argentina in Cape Town? Many will argue Argentina has a better team make-up and proper tactical leadership under head coach Alejandro Sabella. The team plays much better defensive football, having not conceding since the group stage. Messi is the star and has done the heavy lifting. Javier Mascherano has been a pain in the butt (pardon the pun) proving his worth as a standout defensive midfielder. Goalkeeper Sergio Romero has made timely saves, namely against Iran helping set the stage for Messi's late magic. The rest of the team has been surprisingly average considering they have not trailed in the competition. You can only beat whom you play. There's no question Argentina has had the easiest road to Rio.
If Angel Di Maria (thigh) is fit to play, which is a serious question mark, six starters will return from the Argentina XI that was embarrassed in 2010. No Di Maria would be a significant loss, as the winger serves as the best link to Messi, opening up space and adding much needed pace and quality down the wings. Sabella has no ready-made replacement for Di Maria – a worry among many for the Argentine tactician.
As collective, it's indisputable this team is better than the 2010 edition. They are even better than they were on June 15 when they started their Brazilian adventure at the Maracana against Bosnia and Herzegovina. Sabella switched from a 3-5-2 he started the tournament to a more traditional 4-3-3, with Messi dropping deep from time to time to get more involved in the play. The shape has been better, and has been good enough to grind out results, but two goals in the knockout rounds doesn't flatter. Belgian Coach Marc Wilmots called Argentina 'ordinary' after defeat in the round of 16. Although this assessment is a little harsh, it would be difficult to find reason to shower the South Americans with praise either.
Hope remains an improved performance has been saved for the grandest of stages. And there's always a chance the four-time Ballon d'Or winner can dig deep to unleash some more of his special, game-changing kind of magic. But other than that, there is very little reason to believe Argentina will truly concern the German powerhouse. Reaching for historical arguments such as no European team has ever won a World Cup in the Americas fails to hold water. More recent evidence is more poignant than an antiquated argument from previous eras when travel and continental exposure of players was much more limited. Bottom-line is this World Cup is Germany's to lose, not Argentina's to win.
What has changed for Germany in four years? They have become better as a team and their main challenger, Spain, is long gone at this tournament. Germany has been the best team at this World Cup and it's hardly an argument. Bigger picture, if it were not for Spain's dominance over the last six years, we would be discussing German success as glowingly as we do the tiki-taka. Success has come through familiarity and shared adversity. Glory hasn't come easy for Die Mannschaft in recent years, but the fruits of their labour, patience and cultivation of a collective identity are about to be rewarded.
I flew to Durban a few days after Germany's masterclass against Argentina in 2010 for the semi-final against Spain. Just as they schooled Argentina earlier that week, Germany was taught a footballing lesson that day, being made look to be second-class citizens in a 1-0 loss. The gap in quality and performance was much greater than the scoreline. Spain dominated the ball and Germany couldn't touch it. There wasn't even a chance to unleash their daunted and exceptionally clinical counter-attack. Carles Puyol's goal in the 73rd minute signaled 'No Mas'. It was a thorough beating, one not to be forgotten.
Nor was lesson taught by Spain in the EURO 2008 final in Vienna. It was also a 1-0 scoreline, but Germany only managed one shot on target. The disappointment in 2010 was ever more painful because the sizeable gap in finished product between nations remained. It may have been a younger German team in South Africa, but that didn't matter. The bar had been set and Germany again failed to clear it. Frustration continued into 2012, with this time Italy proving too difficult to breakdown in a 2-1 semi-final loss. Close, but not there yet.
Germany didn't panic. Joachim Loew remained as head coach, a position he has held since 2006. Patience has been exercised as a young, talented, and unified generation of German footballers has been ushered through the system. It starts at the developmental level. Neuer, Howedes, Boateng, Hummels, Khedira, and Ozil all started for the 2009 UEFA European U-21 Championship side. They have grown and moved into the senior ranks together. Nine players, including five of the aforementioned names, which beat Argentina in 2010, will start Sunday. There will be eight returning starting players from the setback in Warsaw two years ago. It's remarkable consistency for a country with plenty of tactical and positional options. And it breeds success.
The familiarity comes at the club level as well. Six players who will start in the World Cup final were also part of the Bayern Munich team who suffered home heartache in the Champions League final against Chelsea in 2012. They were clearly the better side on home soil at the Allianz Arena that day. Penalties undid them. Another lesson well taken. A year later, disappointment turned to elation with a Champions League final victory at Wembley over fellow German side Borussia Dortmund. A culture of winning, cultivated.
The learning curve continued this month in Brazil. A late injury to Marco Reus during pre-tournament preparations meant a change of thought. Mario Gotze was the preferred replacement. The decision to start Philipp Lahm in central midfield was also made, rather than having the captain as menace in a freelance right-back role. After getting off to a flier in a 4-0 victory over 10-man Portugal, the plaudits became muted after three unspectacular performances against Ghana, the United States and Algeria. Germany looked particularly unimpressive against the latter, with the North Africans taking them to extra time before being disposed. The back four was flat, slow and flawed. And a more direct approach in attack was required to get the most out of all the superior movement off the ball.
A tournament-ending injury to the average Shkodran Mustafi forced Loew's hand, finally deploying Lahm at right back. The dominant three-headed midfield of Schweinsteiger, Kroos, and Khedira was re-united. And the lone remaining player from Germany's 2002 World Cup final appearance, Miroslav Klose entered the starting XI, preferred over Gotze, to hold the high line. Each move worked to perfection. Germany out-classed a previously impressive France team before running all over hosts Brazil in a shock 7-1 result. Klose set a new record for World Cup goals (16) along the way, and the more youthful Thomas Muller, 24, scored his fifth of the tournament, and 10th overall in World Cup play. The questionable backline has looked rocked solid with Mats Hummels leading the line. And no goalkeeper has looked more composed, confident and positionally sound than the impeccable Manuel Neuer.
We can talk up individual performances all we like. We tend to do that in sports. It's an easier conversation to have. But in truth, this German team is better discussed as a sum of all parts. There is exceptional balance in the current team. Typical German football traits of size, strength and efficiency are all plain to see. It's the imaginative, football intelligence side that's much more impressive. One needs look no further than Germany's first goal of the tournament. The Germans overloaded on the Portuguese left side with exceptional movement in and out of space. Superb one-touch football where movement off the ball is as important as the touches on it led to defender Joao Pereira having little choice than to take Muller down in the box for a penalty. Find weakness and expose it.
The theme of superior football intelligence, movement and collective understanding has carried over to where we are today. This all coming from a team with an average age of 25.9: a young squad, yet so experienced. It's easy to criticize Brazil's defensive frailties in the embarrassing semi-final loss. But credit must not be taken away from Germany's ability to move forward in numbers with pace and purpose. For example, Kroos typical sits back and provides service from deep positions. That wasn't the case early against Brazil, with Kroos getting in more advanced positions down the left, often-times further up field than Mesut Ozil. It's the relentlessness and understanding of their waves of attack that make this team special. This has less to do with individual quality than it does mutual understanding about the way they play and personal responsibility within the system.
We are witness currently to a special generation of German footballers, not that this is anything new. No country has made more World Cup semi-finals (12) than the Germans. The most recent unprecedented run of form (four World Cup semi-finals in a row) is the latest testament to a superior football philosophy and internal development. The only thing missing is a major title. Sunday is their best chance.
The World Cup Trophy and a fourth World title is within reach. Germany is the better team, and the better team should beat the better player. Just like in Cape Town in 2010. This is Germany's World Cup to win. They can only beat themselves. Not this time. Not this team.