Will Argentina complete a remarkable and slightly inexplicable run to the title, or will Germany finally realize their unlimited potential?
Here are the key matchups to watch.
Ezequiel Garay v. Miroslav Klose
Klose has done it. He has set the all-time World Cup goal-scoring record, and gotten back to the World Cup final twelve years after he first made it to this stage.
Klose won his place back in the German team for two reasons: One, he’s the only out-and-out striker on the roster, and two, because he simply scores World Cup goals for his country no matter what his age, club scenario, form, or other extenuating circumstances say.
Klose scored within a minute of being on the pitch in his debut in this tournament against Ghana, and he scored the goal that broke the dam open against the Brazilians.
But the truth is, Klose hasn’t been great in this tournament. He’s turned the ball over, and his off the ball running hasn’t been as sharp as we’re accustomed to. Maybe that’s Klose’s 36 years catching up to him, but the striker still looks a little rusty.
Klose is only going to play some 60 minutes in the final, but if he can raise the level of his game for the final, it’s going to be nearly impossible to stop the Germans.
Argentina’s defense has been very good in the elimination games, and Garay, who is departing Benfica for Zenit St. Petersburg in Russia, has been the rock.
While Martin Demichelis, somehow, has staked his place alongside Garay, he plays a much more limited game than his center-back partner.
Garay needs to play the game of his life to give Argentina a fighting chance.
Javier Mascherano v. Sami Khedira
Mascherano and Khedira have arguably been their team’s best players behind the likes of Messi and Muller.
In the semifinal, Mascherano may have saved Argentina’s campaign with a heroic block on Arjen Robben, while marshaling a game that was made for him in his destroyer midfield role. Whether Mascherano should have been on the pitch at all, after suffering what appeared to be a concussion, is another matter.
Khedira is the man who makes the German machine tick. When it appeared he would miss the tournament with a torn ACL suffered in December, it was a massive blow to Germany’s title chances.
That he’s been good in this tournament is one of the biggest ingredients for German success.
These two players lead their midfields, but whichever team’s trio gets the better of the midfield battle will set up their team for success.
Sergio Romero v. Manuel Neuer
This has been a great World Cup for goalkeeping. After the debacle of 2010, players like Navas, Ochoa, Howard, and more have covered the tournament in goalkeeping glory.
And while Tim Howard was possessed against Belgium, Ochoa possessed against Brazil, and others sterling throughout, Neuer may actually be superhuman.
His sweeper-keeper demonstration against Algeria was almost an exercise in self-parody, but his final save on Karim Benzema against France and his goalkeeping at the beginning of the second half against Brazil was simply astounding. Can anyone beat Neuer?
On the other end of the field, Romero had a coming of age moment against Holland in the shootout, an important confidence boost for a ‘keeper who has often been second choice for his club and has rarely seen heavy work in this tournament.
Neuer can easily make a game-turning save. Can Romero?
Messi v. The Machine
This slogan is more than Jon Champion at his finest. This is the most apt way to some up this matchup. Either this will be Messi’s World Cup and crowning moment, or it will be a victory for a great team with no megastars that work in that clinical German style.
We’d love to see Messi dominate this occasion. Maybe winning this World Cup wouldn’t make Messi Maradona back home. Maybe because of his demeanor and personality, that is impossible.
But if Messi does win this World Cup, he’ll have nothing left to prove to anyone. He’d be the best player, on the brightest stage, delivering his biggest performance.
That, or Germany wins World Cup number four.
Image courtesy of 8bit-Football.com.