Monday 23 October 2017

Role reversal puts the Germans in pole thanks to their attacking flair

Low's side can reach new heights in final

Joachim Low
Joachim Low

Eamonn Sweeney

Tonight's World Cup final is a classic example of yin and yang. South America against Europe. Attacking flair against defensive strength. Rigid organisation against improvisatory brilliance. The spirit of adventure against the rule of caution.

But, paradoxically, it's Germany who embody the virtues we normally associate with South American football while Argentina have taken their lead from the grimmer aspects of the game on this continent. Tonight looks like being a battle between the Latin American flair of the Germans and the Teutonic efficiency of the Argentinians.

Germany, under the visionary Jogi Low, are merely carrying on from where they left off in 2010. Four years ago, before losing to Spain in the semis, they were the first team since the Brazilian team of 1970 to score four goals on three separate occasions in the finals. Their final tally of 16 had been exceeded only once since 1970, by Brazil in 2002.

This time they go into the final with 17 goals under their belt. Two goals will put them level with Brazil 1970, albeit with one extra game played, while three would make them the highest-scoring team since France in 1958. Low's team is all about attack.

That's why they got such stick at home for their performances in the 2-2 draw with Ghana and the 2-1 victory over Algeria. Their commitment to attack meant Germany were open at the back in a way you simply don't expect. But the opposite side of this coin is the team's remorseless desire to keep on attacking even when they take the lead, that's why Portugal and Brazil ended up shipping 11 goals between them. We got a taste of it ourselves in the 6-1 defeat at the Aviva. This team just keeps coming.

Argentina, on the other hand, are reluctant to emerge from their shell. Before the tournament, you'd have imagined that should his country make the final, Lionel Messi would have played the leading role. Instead, once we reached the knockout stages, the spirit of the team has been epitomised by a different M, Javier Mascherano, whose diligence and doggedness are the qualities which have taken Argentina to within 90 minutes of glory.

Alejandro Sabella's team have scored just seven goals. This isn't a record, the awful Argentines of 1990 hit just five on their way to the decider while Spain had only managed seven at this stage four years ago. But their 1-0, 1-0, 0-0 run of results in the knockout games shows what Argentina are all about.

Perhaps it was the chasing Nigeria and Iran gave the Argentinian back four in the group stages which prompted this turn towards negativity. The open football of 2006 and 2010 has vanished and the tournament has been the poorer for it. Yet there's something undeniably magnificent about a defensive unit which hardly yielded a chance to Switzerland, Belgium and Holland in five-and-a-half hours of football.

Ezequiel Garay has been monumental, perhaps the best centre-back in the tournament, Pablo Zabaleta has reproduced the remorseless efficiency of his Premier League performances while on the other wing the energetic Marcos Rojo has been a revelation. Even the much maligned Martin De Michelis has looked comfortable in a defence lent further impermeability by the protective shield of Mascherano and the excellence of Sergio Romero behind it.

On the other hand Argentina's attacking strategy seems to be nothing more than a hope that Messi will do something spectacular off his own bat and give them a lead to defend. Isolated and outnumbered in both the quarter- and semi-finals, the great man cut an unhappy, peripheral figure.

That's why neutrals should be cheering for Germany tonight. Low's team, who exemplify the spirit of a tournament which, if it didn't turn out to be the greatest ever in the end, was still one of the best.

They have their own defensive stars in Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels and Philipp Lahm but even there Lahm does most of his best work steaming forward. In midfield, the prodigious Toni Kroos is just one big game from being crowned king of the World Cup at the age of 24 while the subtlety of Mesut Ozil and power of Sami Khedira have helped make Germany irresistible in this area.

Up front Low's horses-for-courses gamble on Miroslav Klose has paid off while Thomas Müller has flourished in the shadow of the big man and looked the best striker in the tournament. With Andre Schurrle and Mario Gotze on the bench, Germany are awash with attacking options. But then again so, on paper, are Argentina. You need courage to play to your own strengths instead of focusing on how to counteract those of the opposition. Jogi Low has that courage and that's why his team deserves to win.

It's not impossible that Messi will produce a great performance tonight and confirm his place alongside Pele and Maradona. Germany's open style may give him more opportunities than he was afforded by either Belgium or Holland. In which case we could be in for a truly great final. But it's the Germans, so often the spoilsports against more exciting opposition as they were in 1954 and 1974, who are the good guys going into this one.

My prediction: 2-1 for Die Mannschaft.

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