Friday, June 08, 2018

Greatest World Cup Matches: Germany-Argentina 2014

The 2014 World Cup final will be remembered for two things: it made Germany the greatest footballing nation of all time and it made Lionel Messi the greatest player never to win a thing for his country.
Argentina entered the tournament by winning the always-difficult South American qualifying group (Brazil did not take part as they were hosts). Manager Alejandro Sabella had built up his team around the Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi, who he had made captain of the team. While Messi had scored 10 goals in qualification, he kept being criticised for not being as good with his home country as he was with Barcelona. But truth was that Argentina had been struggling with setting a style where Messi could be used optimally in a team. It was not because Argentina lacked strength in other positions: an ageing but experienced defense around Manchester City's Martin Demichelis and Pablo Zabaleta, alongside Benfica's Ezequiel Garay and Sporting's Marcos Rojo, in front of Monaco goalkeeper Sergio Romero. The difficulty of finding midfielders in support of Messi was not because of lack of choice: Fernando Gago from Boca Juniors, Lucas Biglia from Lazio, Enzo Perez from Benfica and Maxi Rodriguez from Newell's Old Boys were all in the squad, and complemented the sure starters Javier Mascherano from Barcelona and Angel DiMaria from Real Madrid, the only two players on the squad, besides Messi, of superstar quality. To play up front Argentina had what on paper looked like luxury choices with Inter's Rodrigo Palacio, PSG's Ezequiel Lavezzi, Manchester City's Sergio Aguero and Napoli's Gonzalo Higuain. These choices proved to be purely on paper.
Sabella was an intelligent manager who knew that a team, to win the World Cup, needed to balance play with defense and pace itself for the tournament. Argentina won its group with three victories against Bosnia-Hercegovina, Iran and Nigeria. Despite Messi scoring four goals there was criticism of their slow defense and over-dependence on Messi, as their apparent star strikers could not score (the two other goals were an own-goal and one by defender Rojo), and Messi, despite it all, looked tired, and only showed his brilliance occasionally. In the last-16 Argentina struggled to defeat Switzerland, with DiMaria providing a 1-0 victory late into extra time. Against Belgium in the quarterfinals Argentina won a hard-worked 1-0 victory with Higuain's only goal of the tournament, and in the semifinals Argentina again worked through a penalty kick victory against a difficult and cynical Dutch side. Although they had not looked impressive Argentina were nevertheless in the World Cup final in none other place that in their big rival's home, Brazil. Argentine fans were ecstatic as Brazilians clearly feared the humiliation of Argentina winning in Brazil. Of course, a Brazil-Argentina final would have been what everyone wanted, but this was not to happen when Brazil suffered the greatest humiliation in World Cup history when losing 7-1 in the semifinals to the other finalist, Germany.
This was the third final between Germany and Argentina following 1986 and 1990, with one victory for each. And Germany probably entered the final as favourites, not just because of their Brazil trashing, but because the had been impressive throughout the tournament: they opened with a 4-0 trashing of Portugal, an exciting 2-2 tie against Ghana and a routine 1-0 victory over the USA. They had fought hard to defeat Algeria in extra time in the last-16 and then went on to defeat France 1-0 in the quarterfinal before the now infamously legendary semifinal against Brazil.
Brazilians were surely supporting Germany before the final, and their final lineup had at this point also become admired by the entire world: Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer was the best goalkeeper on the tournament; in front of him in central defense he had Borussia Dortmund's Mats Hummels and Bayern Munich's Jerome Boateng. On left back was Schalke 04's Benedikt Howedes and on right back the Bayern Munich and Germany captain Philipp Lahm, who had been one of the tournament's best players. A young Christoph Kramer from Borussia Monchengladbach was a surprise starter alongside Bayern Munich's veteran Bastian Schweinsteigger in central midfield, just behind the young Toni Kroos, who had been the best midfielder of the tournament and man-of-the-Match against Brazil. Behind the veteran striker Miroslav Klose (who against Brazil had become the most scoring player in World Cup history) were the splendid pair of Mesut Ozil from Arsenal and Bayern Munich's versatile Thomas Muller.
Argentina had been seriously hurt in the quarterfinal when DiMaria got injured. His replacement, Ezequiel Lavezzi, was nowhere near his level, and this proved crucial for Argentina's offensive capabilities in the final. That said, Argentina could have won a very tactical final with few chances: Gonzalo Higuain missed an open chance, alone with the goalkeeper, not even hitting the target, in what has become an infamous miss for a striker that has missed other crucial final goals for Argentina. A goal he scored in the second half was correctly disallowed for off-side, while Rodrigo Palacio, who came in for the hapless Higuain, also missed a big chance at the end of the match. Despite Argentine chances one always had the feeling that a German strike could prove deadly, and it was certainly close when Howedes hit the post following a corner.
But the match ended 0-0 in ordinary time, the third final ever with this result, and it could look as it was going into extra time when two substitutes constructed Germany's winning goal: Chelsea's Andre Schurrle had come on for Cristoph Kramer (who had been injured) and Bayern Munich's Mario Gotze had come in before extra time for Miroslav Klose. Schurrle crossed from the left and inside the area Gotze elegantly controlled the ball with his chest before hammering the ball into goal with a first-timer. He was the first substitute to score the winner in a World Cup final, and at only 22, the youngest as well.
Argentina did not really have any response in the last minutes, and Thomas Muller instead almost made it 2-0. But 1-0 was enough for Germany to be crowned World Champions for the fourth time, and the first European team to win in the Americas. To everyone's surprise (not least to himself), Lionel Messi was named best player of the tournament, a title which seemed more to be for the sponsors than for the player, who had seemed tired throughout the tournament.

Match Stats:
  • 10th July, 2014 Estadio Maracana, Rio de Janeiro 
  • Spectators: 74,738 
  • Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (Italy)   
Germany-Argentina 1-0 
Goals: 1-0 Mario Gotze (113)

Germany: Manuel Neuer; Philipp Lahm, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, Benedikt Howedes, Cristoph Kramer (Andre Schurrle, 31), Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil (Per Mertesacker, 120), Miroslav Klose (Mario Gotze, 88)
Argentina: Sergio Romero; Martin Demichelis, Pablo Zabaleta, Ezequiel Garay, Marcos Rojo, Javier Mascherano, Lucas Biglia, Enzo Perez (Fernando Gago, 86), Ezequiel Lavezzi (Sergio Aguero, 46), Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain (Rodrigo Palacio, 68) 

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