Tuesday 12 December 2017

Final stage is ready for a king to be crowned

I can't see Messi getting this close and going home without the Cup

Lionel Messi would enter a footballing holy trinity along with Pele and Maradona if he can inspire Argentina to a World Cup win
Lionel Messi would enter a footballing holy trinity along with Pele and Maradona if he can inspire Argentina to a World Cup win
Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

Brazilian fans have had a tough few days, but things could be about to get worse. In what would be a horrendous end to a disastrous week for them, Argentina could win the World Cup in the Maracana tonight.

Argentina were my pre-tournament tip. I thought they had too much strength in attack. I figured that whatever weakness they had in defence, and particularly in goal, the presence of so many creative and goal-scoring matchwinners at the other end would see them through. On the off chance that teams managed to keep Lionel Messi quiet, which I couldn't see them doing, they would have more than enough in their squad to outscore anyone. They could concede plenty, but score more. That was how I saw it beforehand.

The reality, of course, has been very different. Just two goals in three knockout games hardly points to a team overloaded with attacking threats. A defence that has kept three clean sheets in a row is not one that you pinpoint as particularly weak. Only Messi has scored more than one goal, but he has yet to hit the heights we know he can. Sergio Aguero, my tip for the Golden Boot, hasn't scored at all.

I'm not sure whether that highlights the folly of making predictions or just my personal failings, but, either way, I'm going for an Argentina win this evening.

Line up the two squads next to each other, and you'd probably have to say the Germans edge it on paper. Their defence has been strengthened by the introduction of Mats Hummels at centre-half and the return of Philipp Lahm to full-back. They're capable of passing Argentina off the field in the central areas and they showed in the semi-final demolition of Brazil what they will do if you give them chances to score. And even if you do get behind the German defence, you still have to find a way past the world's best goalkeeper.

Germany have also had an extra day's rest to recover from their semi-final. Where Argentina went the distance against Holland on Wednesday, Germany had the luxury of playing over an hour of garbage time against Brazil the previous night. These things matter greatly in tournament football. And while measuring morale and confidence from a distance is near impossible, you have to assume Germany have the upper hand after that rout. It's no surprise they are favourites.

Argentina, however, are led by the greatest player in the world. I've worked on four of their six games for RTÉ, and before every programme the conversation is the same. Someone suggests we go beyond the Messi factor in our pre-match analysis. Let's avoid the appearance we're just taking the easy option. It's a team sport, it's not all just about him. Let's go elsewhere with our focus on how they can succeed. Every time, though, his name is mentioned within seconds.

He is out on his own for a reason. No other player in either squad comes close to offering the same threat. Even on his poorest of days, he has more impact on the opposition than most of his team-mates. When he seems quiet or withdrawn or has long spells without the ball, as he did against Holland, he is still the primary concern of every one of his opponents. He occupies their minds just by being there. A momentary lapse of concentration is all he needs to create something from nothing. Often, he doesn't even need that.

Amazingly, there are people who still believe he has something to prove. The theory goes that he needs to win a World Cup to rank among the game's true greats. Something to do with showing he can perform on the biggest stage when it really matters, I think. It could also be based on the notion that you can't be a great player without winning one, but there are too many obvious examples to refute that.

It's hard to gauge whether or not Germany were just in the right place at the right time on Tuesday night. Maybe any team would have hammered Brazil given the way they imploded. Perhaps the relatively uninspired performances Germany gave throughout the tournament are a truer measure of what to expect from them.

It's worth remembering that neither of these sides looked particularly convincing this time last week. Neither looked like potential champions, but it was hard to identify a team that did. It hasn't been a great World Cup in terms of seeing great teams, but there is no questioning the quality of the one man everyone will be watching. I can't imagine him getting this close to the trophy and going home without it.


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