In the final minutes of the World Cup final at the Maracana, Argentina had an opportunity to release Lionel Messi who was lurking -he did a lot of lurking in this tournament - on the right-hand edge of the box. Instead of playing the ball to his feet, Lucas Biglia hit it over Messi’s head and sent the world’s best player scurrying towards the touchline in pursuit of the ball, wasting the energy he was trying to conserve.
Messi couldn’t keep the ball in, the moment was wasted and Argentina prepared to lose the World Cup.
Moments later, Messi blew Argentina’s final chance when he sent a free-kick over the bar, looking at that point like a caricature of Messi rather than the real thing.
If the first incident suggested that Messi was cursed to have to play in such a limited side, the second illustrated that he never did enough in this final to transcend his team-mates’ limitations.
Perhaps the achievement was reaching the final. Messi vomited during the first half and the real story about his fitness or energy levels may emerge in the coming days.
He had started the final as if he had one last bit of energy to give but by the second half, after he had missed his best chance, he looked worn down and when extra-time came he could find nothing either side of Mario Gotze’s winning goal.
Beforehand, it was hard to know who would be the more fitting champion. A German victory would be a reward for long-term planning, sensible strategy and it would probably result in people using the word ‘structures’ a lot. It would be a victory for all the things we consider essential in the administration of sport, and as such it should be applauded but it was hard not to wish for the romantic outcome, the triumph of the only genius taking part in the final. No, not Martin Demichelis, Messi.
Messi had moments but as the game wore on he dropped deeper and deeper when it was clear that Mats Hummels was a weakness for Germany. Argentina had Rodrigo Palacio running at him when it could have been Messi.
Argentina clung on mainly thanks to Javier Mascherano who held them together. If Messi’s state of fitness is one of the great mysteries of this World Cup, another is how this Argentinian defence conceded only one goal in the knockout stages and that was the goal that won the tournament for Germany.
Joachim Low had named the same side as the semi-final victory but Sami Khedira injured his calf in the warm-up and was replaced by Christoph Kramer, the young Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder. Germany had been so assured with their midfield three of Khedira, Schweinsteiger and Kroos that this would pose them a problem. Argentina knew all about problems - Angel di Maria and Sergio Aguero weren’t fit to start and, as a consequence, they were even more dependent on Messi.
The contrast in the sides was clear in the opening minutes. Germany were incisive and cohesive while Argentina hoped for something on the break and hoped that Messi would provide it. Philipp Lahm was a dominant figure from right-back but Messi looked as interested and dangerous as he has been at any time in the tournament, making two devastating runs which bookended the first half and which had German defenders scrambling.
Germany’s tactics were curious as they seemed to be inviting to run at him as they pushed up, gambling that he would prefer to play a more withdrawn role but it was a pretty big gamble.
Argentina took their own risks, They looked uneasy every time the ball was anywhere near their box even if Germany made the first critical mistake when Toni Kroos headed towards his own goal, unaware that Gonzalo Higuain was hovering.
Higuain was through but pulled the shot wide, the start of a miserable evening as minutes later, he failed to time his run from an Ezequiel Lavezzi ball when he had a goal disallowed for offside. Then, in the second half, Manuel Neuer clattered into him as he punched clear. Argentina looked for a penalty. Neuer had got the ball but amazingly the referee penalised Higuain. His substitution after 77 minutes left Argentina with no fully fit member of the forward line so celebrated before the tournament but Alejandro Sabella had decided that Rodrigo Palacio offered more.
Messi had started the move that led to Higuain’s disallowed goal in the first half with a glorious pass, emerging from one of his quiet periods to release Lavezzi who would shortly return the favour, but it was a signal that he was intent again, conducting a brief terror campaign against Germany’s defence in the first-half, accompanied at times by Lavezzi.
Argentina’s good spell coincided with the withdrawal of Kramer whose head had smashed violently into Ezequiel Garay’s shoulder, an early sign that the game was going to have an aggressive edge. Kramer left shortly afterwards with Andre Schurrle replacing him and Mesut Ozil moving into centre.
Argentina were saved a few times by the referee and just before half-time, Benedikt Howedes headed against the post, exposing Argentina’s weakness.
Lavezzi didn’t look like one of them in the first half so he must have been injured for Sabella to make a change at half-time, replacing him with Aguero. Sabella would have hoped that Aguero would push Germany back but still they invited Messi to get behind them. When he did just after the interval, he was through on goal, bearing down from a familiar position and his shot beat Manuel Neuer but went the wrong side of the post.
Argentina were put out by Neuer’s challenge on Higuain and took some retaliatory action.
Messi had faded since the chance early in the half and when he did get on the ball, he was less willing to run at defenders, although one interchange with Pablo Zabaleta saw him drift across the box but his shot never bothered Neuer.
Both sides were tiring but Argentina looked more vulnerable in that condition and they could have been trailing except Toni Kroos side-footed wide after the sort of German move that had torn Brazil apart.
Germany looked too tired to do that again and in injury-time, Messi lifted himself again. He chased back to win the ball off Ozil, in fact it was if he had to win the ball off Ozil, and played a dangerous ball towards Palacio but he couldn’t bring it under control.
Messi hadn’t scored since the group stage and when the game went to extra-time, it meant Argentina had scored only one goal inside 90 minutes during the knockout stages. This meant that they were relying on their unorthodox defence although the protection offered by Mascherano made sense of their record in this competition.
Within seconds of the restart, Sergio Romero had to save from Schurrle and then the defence looked panicked again with only Pablo Zabaleta and Mascherano in front of them staying calm.
When Argentina did find space, they blew it. Aguero wasted an opportunity to find Messi before Palacio found himself with only Neuer to beat after Hummels was caught under the ball. With the goalkeeper advancing, Palacio’s attempted lob dribbled wide.
The game which had promised so much now appeared to be limping towards penalties, perhaps fitting as the players hobbled around the Maracana.
But in the end, the Argentina defence was exposed when Schurrle crossed and Mario Gotze was unmarked in the box and volleyed past Romero who had got his angles wrong.
Argentina were losing and inevitable all eyes turned to Messi. He couldn’t oblige and he ended the game in a familiar pose, staring at the ground, just another person looking elsewhere for inspiration.