Sunday 8 December 2019

Messi can still produce magic touch to shake up the world

If Germany's strategy to keep Argentina's captain quiet works, the questions over Joachim Löw's side will be answered, but the threat of Messi can be enough to intimidate

Argentina'ls Lionel Messi
Argentina'ls Lionel Messi

Dion Fanning

Any anticipation of the World Cup final should probably begin with anticipation of its only genius. It is a testament to the talent of Lionel Messi that it is possible to argue he has not had a great tournament while making the case that Argentina would not have reached the World Cup final without him.

Messi has not scored since the group stage. In the semi-final, he didn't touch the ball once inside the Dutch penalty area and his father says he is playing with legs that weigh "100 kilos each".

Yet he remains a great presence, a man who walks across the pitch like Sinatra with a lone spotlight shining on him. He makes no racket but instead, more than ever, practises an economy of movement which seems to emphasise what he is capable of rather than what he will do. He might not have exploded in this tournament but what terrifies opponents is the thought that he may yet. Germany's assistant coach Hansi Flick says they have a plan for containing him, but "we're not going to reveal it".

Argentina's problem is that everybody knows the plan: Crowd out Messi and bet that there is no other player in the side who can take advantage of the space. It is a bet Germany will be confident of winning this afternoon.

In his foreword to Guillem Balague's biography of Messi, Alejandro Sabella writes of his first meeting with the player when he travelled to Barcelona to talk to Messi and Javier Mascherano and to tell them both that he felt Messi should be the captain of the side.

"I considered it essential for everyone to know that Leo was the leader and he would lead in his own natural manner," Sabella said.

Mascherano has, of course, led like a captain while Messi has led like a genius. Mascherano told Balague that it was his idea Messi should become captain, but the important thing was that Messi had become captain and that Sabella was eager to facilitate it.

In the foreword, Sabella makes no attempt to be something he is not, acknowledging how he decided on Messi's role in the team.

"Barcelona chose to play him in the centre, a ploy we copied in the national side, simply because it worked so well for them. Leo gets more of the ball in that area, and the more he gets the ball, the better it is for everyone else. As he is mature, confident, intelligent, he cannot be marginalised on the sides. And with Higuain and Aguero opening up the space for him, and with Di Maria operating on the wing, Leo can decide from his position in the centre where to take the game."

Only Higuain can be confident of playing at his peak in tonight's game and opening up the space for Messi to utilise as he sees fit. With Di Maria a doubt and with Aguero far away from anything approaching sharpness, Germany's job in denying Messi space should be easier.

They have emerged as the outstanding team at the tournament, if not an outstanding team, but they have emerged slowly. When Joachim Löw named his side to play France in the quarter-final, there were suggestions that he was crumbling. The experiment with Philipp Lahm as a central midfielder was over (like Sabella, Löw had taken the idea from Lahm's club coach Pep Guardiola), Sami Khedira started in midfield and, just as importantly, Mats Hummels replaced Per Mertesacker in the centre of defence.

Löw insisted he had moved Lahm to right-back to deal with a specific threat from the French. He remained there for the semi-final and it would be a surprise if there was not a specific threat from Argentina which keeps Lahm in that position at the Maracana.

Before the France game, some wondered if Germany could have any hope when the coach was abandoning a core belief at the quarter-final stage. Coaches are expected to be stubborn, except when there is a demand that they listen.

Lahm had said before the tournament that he expected to play in midfield and, when it was put to him that he could move from midfield to right-back depending on the circumstances, he sounded unsure. "It's possible, but I have to say that it's not easy for a player to keep changing."

Lahm's wishes were clear, but Löw has always been flexible and, as Germany exited the European Championships two years ago after a surprising defeat to Italy, some wondered if he was too eager to reshape things tactically depending on the opposition.

When Germany threw away a four-goal lead against Sweden in the World Cup qualifiers, it felt like all the doubts about the side were now confirmed. Where was the German resolve? After Germany reached the European Championship final in 2008, Jens Lehmann said the side were "too pleased to have made the final to win it". The absence of the traditional values were lamented after the 2012 defeat which, in itself, had followed Bayern Munich's Champions League final loss on penalties to Chelsea in Munich.

Löw was mocked. His adverts for Nivea shampoo were something to laugh at. Before the World Cup began, he lost his driving licence for speeding and his long runs on the beach at Germany's training base at Camp Bahia were ridiculed as exercises in vanity. But vain men can be good at what they do.

Even so, there were concerns that Germany would be the European power that would fail to get out of the group, something that was acknowledged by Löw, who said that change would have to be considered if that happened.

Even though the tournament began with the comprehensive defeat of Portugal - an early indication that there has been no team better in the tournament at punishing mistakes than Germany - there was plenty of scepticism.

Lahm was ordinary in midfield and the four centre-backs who were trying to be a defence looked unsure of themselves. By the time Shkodran Mustafi was selected at right-back for the last-16 game against Algeria, the defence looked plagued by self-doubt.

If Löw and Germany win today, then it will be a triumph for a coach in a tournament that had initially looked like being a vanity project for star footballers. Germany have overcome the loss of their most gifted player Marco Reus and their edginess, in the games against Ghana and Algeria, feels a long way away.

In the quarter-final, they sucked the life out of a France side that created chances but couldn't cope with the strength of the German midfield and the awareness of Thomas Müller. Then came Belo Horizonte.

No other team in the competition could have done to Brazil what Löw's side did to Brazil in the first half, in six minutes. They are a team designed to punish mistakes and they have a midfield which makes chasing the game a demoralising experience for opponents.

The three in midfield, Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger, present a unified force, even if it is the running and opportunism of Müller which might be the defining characteristic of the German side.

Of the midfielders, only Kroos was a certain starter during the uncertainty that characterised everything before the quarter-final in Rio, but the semi-final has made everything - including victory today - appear inevitable.

Brazil's self-destruction played a decisive part in the 7-1 scoreline and so inept were they that it was easy to think that Germany had very little to do with the most devastating result in World Cup history.

If they were to fail at the Maracana, Brazil's role in Germany's Belo Horizonte triumph would be considered critical. If Germany were to fail at the Maracana, all the old doubts would emerge and they would be accused, once again, of being too pleased at having made the final to win it.

If they fail, Argentina will need one man to continue his one-man act of destruction. Javier Mascherano once remarked that he wasn't the world's best player, but "I've got the biggest balls". In the semi-final against Holland, he personified the changed emphasis of this Argentina side which was expected to play with a swagger, to demolish teams with attacking flair but to crumble in defence. Their defence may yet still crumble and Mascherano may find it hard to clamp down on all the possible lines of German attack as he shut down Arjen Robben in the final seconds in Sao Paulo, but he won't stop trying.

Mascherano was captain in South Africa four years ago when Germany dismantled Argentina over a long afternoon in Cape Town. If the humiliation took longer to arrive than Brazil's last Tuesday, it was almost as emphatic. Argentina, like Brazil, could point to their own failings as a reason.

Like Brazil, they had gambled on irrational forces, which in their case was appointing Maradona as coach and hoping that the power of his personality could overcome, well, the power of his personality.

They arrived at Sabella after failure in the Copa America when Mascherano was sent-off against Uruguay in the quarter-final.

Messi became the captain, although this tournament has left nobody in any doubt who leads the team. Mascherano has addressed the players at the end of their two knockout games which have gone to extra-time and he told them before the Belgium match that he was "tired of eating shit".

Mascherano leads, but he will do all he can to destroy as well, engaging in acts of mental disintegration against the opposition which will be surprising and relentless. "Mascherano was the leader of a pack of wolves," was how Bastian Schweinsteiger described his role in the semi-final.

Despite the change from four years ago, Argentina will be relying on greater forces at the Maracana. They will be backed by their massive support whose 'Bad Moon Rising' chant will get louder and louder if they manage to win the World Cup in Brazil. And they will hope for something from Messi.

David Remnick's line about Reggie Jackson has seemed appropriate to Messi in this World Cup. Jackson, Remnick wrote in a profile when the player was 40, was "not past heroics - he could still send the ball screaming into the outer dark - but he was past the expectation of heroics".

Expectations have lowered for Lionel Messi over the course of this World Cup. He is 27, so this is not the start of a decline. Instead, through exhaustion or injury, he has refined his role, making opponents fear the threat of Messi rather than Messi. To do that, he has needed to be Messi on occasion, but those moments have been strictly rationed.

His greatness has been established over many years at Barcelona, but if he could lift himself today in Rio, he would discover how the World Cup offers a different type of immortality. Messi is not past heroics, he is not past a moment that could shake up the Maracana and shake up the world.

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