World Cup Final Preview: Can Lionel Messi and Argentina Beat the Soaring Germans?

On Sunday, Germany will meet Argentina at the Estádio Maracanã. Who will be crowned king for the next four years?

Well, that went fast.

It feels like we were watching Brazil and Croatia kick off the festivities just yesterday, and yet here we are on the precipice of the seemingly endless wait that is the four-year gap between each World Cup.

But the fat lady hasn’t sung yet. We’ve got one match left, and it’s a doozy.

The dust has settled, and a World Cup chalked full of twists, turns, and drama that would make a soap opera jealous has seen fit to grace us with one more enticing matchup. One that should, at least on paper, leave us satisfied and smiling.

On Sunday, when three-time Cup winner Germany meets two-time winner Argentina, not only will it be a matchup of two giants of world football, it will also feature two teams who, stylistically, are quite different.

On one hand, you have the Germans who, when playing up to their full potential, function like a well-oiled machine; controlling possession and bombarding the opposition with a relentless attack. On the other lies Argentina, who have thrived, for the most part, thanks to a few supreme individual efforts and some staunch defensive work.

It’s a classic case of the age old question: “what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?”

Before we go about answering that, let’s briefly take a look back to see how each team arrived in the final, as well as preview what each might need to do to be crowned champion.

Germany's Journey

Germany was staged in Group G along with Portugal, the US, and Ghana, and the European powerhouse emerged as the group’s winner, claiming seven points after defeating Portugal and the US and drawing with Ghana. They then outlasted Algeria in the Round of 16 in a match that ended up being much more competitive than most thought it would be. After that, they saw an early goal against France through as the only goal they'd need to dismiss their European rivals and secure a spot in the semifinals against host nation and favorites, Brazil.

And it was against Brazil where Germany demonstrated just how dominant they can be, by laying waste to a completely helpless Brazilian team to the tune of an eye-popping score of 7-1. Until that result, Germany, much similar a few of the other top-ranked countries, hadn’t quite performed like many (including themselves) thought they would, but that all changed about five minutes or so into the match against Brazil. Germany was probably slightly favored going into the match considering Brazil was going to be without their two best players in Neymar and Thiago Silva, but regardless of that, for Germany to dismantle the six-time champions in such a fashion undoubtedly sent a message to the rest of the world that this sleeping giant had indeed awoken from it’s slumber.

The key for a German victory likely lies in their defense. Although they’ve only allowed four goals in total, the defense has looked highly suspect at times - especially on the counter - and have often relied heavily on the instincts of their prized keeper, Manuel Neuer. Center back Mats Hummels could play a key role in this regard, as he’s unquestionably been the team’s best central defender and will need to continue to be when Messi and Co. come a knockin’.

With a stout midfield, Germany should win the possession battle and that, in turn, should yield some significant chances offensively. So how the team fares against an Argentine counter attack could be the linchpin for Germany’s success or lack their of.

A win for Germany would give them their fourth title, and would mark the first time a European team has won a World Cup on South American soil.

Argentina's Path

Argentina, like Germany, also emerged from their group as winners after defeating Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran, and Nigeria, respectively. Then, a total of two goals is all “La Abiceleste” (The White and Sky Blue) would need to dispense of Switzerland in the Round of 16, and the upstart Belgium in the quarterfinals. However, unlike the Germans, Argentina hitched their wagon to the horse (or perhaps miniature pony in this case) that is Lionel Messi, as he almost single handedly saw his team through to the semifinals.

The semifinals saw them pitted against the Netherlands and their strong, attacking core, but Argentina was able to neutralize said attack (they actually held the Dutch without a shot on goal during the first 90-plus minutes) and prevailed 4-2 in a penalty shootout that saw keeper Sergio Romero make two outstanding saves to all but ensure a victory for his country.

Looking at what they’ll need do to concur the German machine, obviously I’d be remiss if I didn’t say Messi will be a central figure. But it may just be the play of midfielder Javier Mascherano who ultimately decides Argentina’s fate. The defensively-inclined midfield monster was at his best against Netherlands; winning tackles (especially this potentially match-saving one) and making sure the Dutch midfielders, namely Wesley Sneijder, did not have space to operate and create chances up front for players like Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie.

As I stated earlier, Germany’s likely going to win the midfield battle which means they’ll also likely enjoy most of the possession. This means Argentina’s going to have to live on the counter. Mascherano’s going to have his hands full with Özil, Khedira, and Swcheinsteiger etc., but if he can limit their time on the ball and be a link between defense and attack (especially with Ángel di María lost to injury), then Argentina should be able to exploit the German back line.

If Argentina were to win, not only would it be the third time they've hoisted the trophy, but this one would be extra sweet because they'd would have won on the home turf of their bitter rival - and more specifically at the Estádio Maracanã, which is widely regarded as the mecca of Brazilian football.

The numberFire Prediction

Both teams deservedly earned their place in the final, and while they at times may not have performed up to expectations, both have done what teams worthy of being mentioned among the best in the world are supposed to do, and that’s find ways to win the close games. And that’s good, because the numbers indicate we’ve got another nail-biter on our hands.

That’s right, it’s time to, in the words of Jack Black from “School of Rock”, “get off your ‘ath’, let's do some math."

Getting right down to the meat and potatoes, we see from each team’s nERD ranking that this should indeed be a close affair, with Germany’s 3.26 (good for third) just edging out Argentina’s fourth-place score of 3.16. Keep in mind that the nERD score measures overall team efficiency by estimating how many goals each team would score against an average international opponent. As you can see, when comparing our two contestants, it really is just splitting hairs.

With a match score of 1.89 to 1.79, the crystal ball we like to refer to as our game simulator gives the edge, ever-so slightly, to Germany. The simulator rates Germany’s chances at winning in regulation at 37.06%, with those odds increasing to 54.13% should the match need extra time or even penalties. A 33.18% chance of the teams being level at the end of regulation leaves Argentina with a 29.76% percent chance of winning after the first 90-plus minutes, and a 45.87% chance in extra time/penalties.

The numbers predict a tightly-contested battle. Each team’s performance leading up to the final would also suggest things will be nip and tuck on the pitch on Sunday. We’ve got Messi and we’ve got the newly-crowned tournament goal scoring king, Klose. We’ve got offense and we’ve got defense. We’ve got all the makings of another classic World Cup finale. Let’s just hope it lives up to the billing and leaves us with some indelible images that can tide us over for another four years.