World Cup: Who to Watch in the Final Between Germany and Argentina

PHOTO: Head coach Alejandro Sabella of Argentina gestures during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Semi Final match between the Netherlands and Argentina at Arena de Sao Paulo on July 9, 2014 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The main tension of a World Cup usually concerns who will lift the trophy after the final. Not so in 2014.

The narrative driving this summer's tournament has centered on Brazil, always Brazil -- the team, the country, the maddening relationship between the two. The amour fou has been on display in the stadiums and on the streets, from the anti-Fifa protests to the players' weeping fits and bouts of psychic trauma.

With all due credit to a German team that played the "joga bonito" Brazilians now only play on VHS, it was the host's emotional volatility that turned a likely semifinal defeat -- no shame in that -- into a national tragedy.

The final, to be played at Rio's storied Maracanã, kicks off today in the shadows of that monumental capitulation. Germany enters planning for the perfect encore. They know their marks and have, in spells, married the traditional Vorsprung durch Technik with Spain's tiki-taka artistry to produce some of the most compelling performances of the past month.

Opposite them, Argentina and its tiny talisman Lionel Messi are vying for the country's third World Cup title and first since Diego Maradona orchestrated a dramatic defeat of West Germany in the 1986 final. In order for the matchup to be anything more than an afterword in the story of this "Copa Das Copas," the teams will have to craft something original and unique.

Is it likely? No. But as the Germans will tell you: "The ball is round" -- you never know.

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Here are a few things to watch for when you watch today's World Cup final:

Lionel Messi's quest to breakdown Germany's defense

PHOTO: Argentinas forward and captain Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring during the Group F football match between Nigeria and Argentina at the Beira-Rio Stadium in Porto Alegre on June 25, 2014, during the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
PHOTO: Argentina's forward and captain Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring during the Group F football match between Nigeria and Argentina at the Beira-Rio Stadium in Porto Alegre on June 25, 2014, during the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Carlos Santana says he "looks like a plumber," but Argentina need Messi to play like a locksmith. The Barcelona star is the only one on his team, perhaps the only one on Earth, with the speed, precision, and guile to unlock Germany's defense. Algeria managed a late consolation in their round of 16 match, but despite running the Germans out of their cleats, couldn't crack the code when it mattered.

So how will the maestro look to conduct this operation? A look at the two goals Ghana managed in their group stage game suggest Germany possess three glaring weaknesses. Unfortunately for Argentina, two of them have been remedied by manager Joachim Low, who moved captain Philipp Lahm to his natural right back position from a spot in the midfield. That decision, nudged along by an injury to starter Shkodran Mustafi, freed Low to pair Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira as deep-lying midfielders. The pair, charged with protecting the back four and pinging smart passes up to the squad's stellar forward line, has been nearly flawless.

The other issue -- center back Per Mertesacker's leaden feet -- is off the table so long as Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels can stay on the field. Mertesacker was beaten on both goals in the Ghana match. On the first occasion, he was late to launch, allowing Andre Ayew get his head to a looping cross. The second began with a bad pass from Lahm, playing midfield at the time, and ended with Asamoah Gyan skating past the torpid Teuton.

Messi's best hope, winger Ángel di María, will likely be watching from the sidelines. The Real Madrid star injured his thigh early in Argentina's quarterfinal match and has sought to speed his recovery with the help of some unproven stem cell treatments. With di María likely absent, manager Alejandro Sabella must choose between Diego Maradona's daughter's ex-husband, Sergio Agüero, and Gonzalo Higuaín, two players who, though talented goalscorers, lack threatening speed and have yet to make a compelling partnership with Messi.

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