The final will be a new challenge for Javier Mascherano, Philipp Lahm may find himself back in midfield and a tough task awaits Nicola Rizzoli
In most circumstances, if a manager picked a player in a position he hasn’t really played in for his club for the past three years, it might be considered a rather questionable call. Not in the case of Javier Mascherano, though, who has spent much of his time at Barcelona playing in central defence, as part of the part-football, part-extended performance art piece started by Pep Guardiola and continued by Tito Vilanova and Gerardo Martino, but who has played this World Cup in his natural defensive midfield role. Alejandro Sabella recognises that Mascherano is perhaps the best in the world at what he does, and has shown that in Brazil with some towering performances, particularly against Holland after apparently suffering a concussion and “tearing his anus” while tackling Arjen Robben. Which sounds like it would smart a bit, to say the least.
The final will be a whole new world for Mascherano, though, given the myriad creative talents in the German midfield. While the make-up of Joachim Löw’s front six isn’t nailed down, it will almost certainly feature Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Müller and Mesut Özil, all with their different ways of hurting the opposition from deep, and all, you would expect, interchanging at will, buzzing around to cause as much confusion and discomfort as possible for Argentina. The area of the pitch in which these players have the most joy – in front of the defence, behind the midfield – is usually where Mascherano prowls and growls, daring anyone to attempt anything as impetuous as to keep the ball for an extended period of time, or even pass it to a nearby colleague. In previous games Mascherano’s brief has largely been to break up play and keep his eye on one dangerous opponent (Wesley Sneijder for Holland, since Arjen Robben did most of his work on the flank, Eden Hazard for Belgium etc), but against Die Nationalmannschaft he will have plenty of plates to spin. Argentina’s attacking hopes largely rest on Lionel Messi, but further back it’s Mascherano whom they will be looking to. Nick Miller
Lionel Messi did not touch the ball in the penalty area during the 120 minutes against Holland. Let’s type that one out again for clarity, shall we? Lionel Messi did not touch the ball in the penalty area during the 120 minutes against Holland. Here is the best attacking player the world has witnessed over the past few seasons, the player who storms through opposition defences like a hurricane through a trailer park, and yet he could not even get a solitary touch of the ball in the 18-yard box in a World Cup semi-final. The Dutch stopped him by crowding the part of the pitch Messi likes to occupy with three centre-backs and sticking Nigel de Jong and then Jordy Clasie on him as ostensible man-markers. It was an approach that clearly worked and it would be foolish of Löw not to take something from it. He will not remodel his defence to cram in another centre-half but he will surely detail a player from his midfield to keep close to Messi. The question is who. It certainly won’t be Sami Khedira or Kroos, as their talents lie elsewhere. That leaves him with Schweinsteiger. Or Philipp Lahm. Both are intelligent footballers who have the experience and the knowhow to read Messi’s game but Lahm’s greater speed and mobility mean he would be better placed to deal with the threat of the Barcelona man and could do so quicker than Schweinsteiger. The German midfield has been exceptional over the past few games, and the old saw would instruct Löw not to fix something that isn’t broken, but he must be tempted to restore Lahm to his midfield position. Ian McCourt
Some people knock on wood. Some people carry a horseshoe in their back pocket. Some people wear a rabbit’s foot around their neck. Some people look at the new moon over their right shoulder. Löw will be doing all of this and more in the hope that Mats Hummels is fit for the final. The centre-back was taken off at half-time during the semi-final humiliation of Brazil when the knee injury he picked up playing against Portugal poked its head above the parapet. That will be a major worry for the German manager: Hummels has been his best defender. He may not have been tested against Brazil but he was brilliant against France, reading the game superbly, clearing attack after attack and consistently keeping the French front line at bay. Besides all that, he also showed he carries a real threat from set pieces. Per Mertesacker is the obvious replacement and although he has the experience, his lack of pace in a relatively high defensive line could see him exposed against the speedy Argentina attack. IMC
Howard Webb was given a virtually impossible job in the 2010 World Cup final, and faced with two teams intent on booting each other in the behind at every possible opportunity he did a half-reasonable job, that De Jong stud-print in Xabi Alonso’s chest aside. Still, his performance in the Spain-Holland slug-fest made him notorious in both countries, a classic no-win situation in which he, well, didn’t win. The man for whom those joys lie ahead this time is Italian Nicola Rizzoli, appointed to referee a final that should, in theory, be a little less spicy than last time. In many ways refereeing the World Cup final is a bit like being selected to be pope: in theory it should be a huge honour but it’s such a heavy gig that nobody actually wants to do it. Plus you hand down judgment on a massive stage, you’re provided with a fancy uniform and at least half of the world ends up hating you – the similarities are many.
Rizzoli might not quite be donning the big hat and stepping out on to the balcony just yet but the rumblings have already started even before he has had the chance to make a questionable decision. “I don’t want to be a cry baby but I noticed the referee never gives fouls against Argentina,” said the Belgium coach, Marc Wilmots, after Rizzoli officiated the teams’ quarter-final clash. “Every time something happens with Messi the referee gives him a free-kick. I notice he [Messi] made three fouls and no yellow card, we made one foul and one yellow card.” Rizzoli’s credentials are sound but after Wilmots’ comments every decision in favour of Argentina will come under a little more scrutiny and in the end he might just wish he had said: “Thanks, but no thanks.” All the best, Nicola. NM
Alejandro Sabella won’t have got much sleep over the past few days. He has plenty to worry about for his final game in charge of Argentina, not least the problem of who starts on the right-hand side of Argentina’s attack. Both Enzo Pérez and Ángel di María offer their manager similar attributes. They are quick, they can leave defenders with their heads all in a tizzy and they combine well with the right-back, Pablo Zabaleta. However, whereas Pérez tends to hog the right-hand side, thus making him a far easier prospect for a full-back to mark, Di María switches from the left to the right to the middle, making him harder to track than a horned adder in the Namib Desert and causing defences to suffer the sort of headaches normally picked up a death-metal concert. In addition to this, the Real Madrid man is also a more dangerous prospect in and around the box, as he showed against Switzerland. However – and this is a big however – one giant tick in the Pérez’s positive column is the fact that he is fully fit. No aches, no pains, no strains. Di María, as we all know, is not. He was taken off after 33 minutes against Belgium in the quarter-final. He has not crossed the white line since. And although he is back doing some light training, it would be quite the gamble to start an unfit player in a World Cup final, no matter how integral he is to a team. Diego Simeone took a similar chance in the Champions League final with Diego Costa and it backfired spectacularly. Sabella would be wise to learn from this and keep Di María in reserve on the bench should he need him. IMC