The most entertaining World Cup in a generation comes down to a final match that pits the planet's best player against the tournament's best team.
Lionel Messi will lead Argentina out against Germany at Maracana Stadium on Sunday (Monday NZ time) for a game that will define careers, cement legacies and be watched by a global audience of about a billion viewers.
And it's a matchup that means more to both sides than just a chance to lift one of the most hallowed trophies in sports.
For Messi, it's a chance to firmly make his case for being perhaps the greatest ever to play the world's most popular game. For Germany, it's an opportunity to make up for a number of near-misses over the last decade and re-establish itself as the dominant force in international football.
And then there's the matter of settling a historical score. Argentina and West Germany played each other in two straight World Cup finals in 1986 and '90, games that are well remembered in the sports psyche of both countries. Diego Maradona and Argentina won the first, the Germans took the second. So call this game the tiebreaker.
"At this point who is favorite, who is not, it doesn't make a difference," Argentina midfielder Maxi Rodriguez said. "Both teams feel a responsibility to go all the way."
Most would name Germany as the favorite, especially after its astounding 7-1 drubbing of host Brazil in the semifinals. Argentina only reached the final after eking out a penalty shootout win over the Netherlands following a 0-0 draw through 120 minutes.
Germany also dismantled Argentina 4-0 in the 2010 quarterfinals in South Africa.
"Germany is a great team. What happened to Brazil could happen to any team," Argentina forward Sergio Aguero said. "(But) we have players who can create danger up front. We're in the final for a reason."
One thing speaks against Germany, too. No European team has ever won a World Cup played in the Americas. Whether that's because of the climate, the fan support or something else, Germany thinks it can buck the trend.
"We are looking forward to playing a South American team in South America but we hope the Brazilian fans will be supporting us," Germany assistant coach Hansi Flick said. "We know the Argentina team very well, we've played often against them. We know what to expect."
The question is, what can Argentina expect from Messi?
For Argentina to have a chance, the Barcelona forward will have to perform considerably better than he did against the Netherlands, when he was hardly visible for most of the game.
The four-time world player of the year scored four goals in the three group games but is on a three-game scoring drought in the knockout stages - including two extra time periods. While fellow forwards Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero are both capable of deciding big games themselves, and the team's defense has looked surprisingly solid, it's hard to see Argentina winning without a big contribution from Messi.
For Germany, the equation is equally simple: If it can contain Argentina's biggest threat, its superior strength in the rest of the field should make the difference. From goalkeeper to center forward, Germany is a team without a weakness. With the exception of an erratic performance against Algeria in the second round, Germany has played like a perfect team machine, getting goals from defenders, midfielders and forwards alike.
"We'll have to keep with Messi constantly and try to disturb him," Germany forward Thomas Mueller said. "It will be important to act as a unit."
Germany has not won a major tournament since the 1996 European Championship, losing in the final of the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2008. It was knocked out in the semifinals at both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, and Euro 2012.
Forward Miroslav Klose, who scored his record 16th World Cup goal against Brazil in the semifinals, is the only player who remains from that 2002 team.
"I don't want to lose another final," Klose said. "I want to lift the cup."
Regardless of what happens, Klose's legacy is already secure as the tournament's all-time top scorer. To say Messi's will be defined by one game is an exaggeration, but the World Cup trophy is the only thing that currently separates him from the likes of Pele and Maradona in the echelon of all-time greats.
If he lifts it on Sunday, he'll join them for good. Maybe even as the best of them all.
GERMANY'S PATH TO FINAL
June 16, Salvador, Germany 4 Portugal 0
Germany began the tournament as one of the favourites and a 4-0 thrashing of Portugal in their group opener left no one in any doubt about their title credentials.
Thomas Mueller netted a hat-trick and defender Mats Hummels added another as Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal endured a day to forget. Adding insult to injury, Portugal centre back Pepe was sent off late in the first half for head-butting Mueller, and Fabio Coentrao and Hugo Almeida both came off injured.
June 21, Fortaleza, Germany 2 Ghana 2
After their impressive opening win, the Germans were brought down to earth by an athletic Ghana side, surrendering the lead and needing a Miroslav Klose strike to rescue a 2-2 draw.
It was Klose's 15th World Cup goal and brought him level with former Brazil forward Ronaldo as the top marksman in the tournament's history. He later set a new best with his goal against Brazil in the last four.
June 26, Recife, United States 0 Germany 1
On a rain-lashed night in Recife, Germany's victory against a team coached by their former striker Juergen Klinsmann secured top spot in the group, with the Americans going through in second place after Portugal beat Ghana in the other match.
Mueller netted his fourth goal of the finals 10 minutes after halftime as Germany moved through to the knockout stages and a meeting with surprise package Algeria.
ROUND OF 16
June 30, Porto Alegre, Germany 2 Algeria 1 (aet)
Germany were unable to break through a determined Algeria defence until extra time, when goals from Andre Schuerrle and Mesut Ozil sealed a spot in the last eight.
Schuerrle's effort was one of the best of the tournament as he let the ball run between his legs and expertly flicked it into the net with his heel.
After Ozil had smashed in a close-range shot to make it 2-0, Algeria set German nerves jangling when they pulled a goal back but it came too late for the North Africans.
July 4, Rio de Janeiro, France 0 Germany 1
Hummels struck his second goal of the finals in the 13th minute before Germany comfortably held on against fellow European heavyweights France, who had played well in the group phase but turned in a toothless performance in Rio.
Germany should have extended their lead several times, Schuerrle squandering their best chance eight minutes from time, before goalkeeper Manuel Neuer made a superb one-handed block in the dying moments to keep out a fierce Karim Benzema shot and preserve the German lead.
July 8, Belo Horizonte, Brazil 1 Germany 7
In one of the most incredible matches in World Cup history, Brazil fans watched in horror as Germany put five goals past the hosts before half an hour had been played at the Mineirao stadium.
The Brazil defence, missing suspended captain Thiago Silva, was in utter disarray as Mueller struck in the 11th minute before Klose, Toni Kroos (2) and Sami Khedira found the net in an astonishing six-minute spell to make it 5-0.
Schuerrle struck twice in the second half before Oscar finally pulled one back for Brazil in the 90th minute.
ARGENTINA'S PATH TO FINAL
June 15, Rio de Janeiro, Argentina 2 Bosnia 1
Lionel Messi had a hand in both goals as Argentina saw off a spirited Bosnia side making their debut at a World Cup finals.
Sead Kolisinac scored the fastest own goal in the tournament's history from Messi's free kick after two minutes and eight seconds. Argentina's four-times World Player of the Year then netted a superb second midway through the second half, exchanging passes with Gonzalo Higuain and curling a shot low into the net off a post. Bosnia pulled a goal back late on but Argentina and their talisman Messi were not to be denied a winning start.
June 21, Belo Horizonte, Argentina 1 Iran 0
Messi left it late to secure the win in Argentina's second outing in Brazil against an Iran side who defended superbly against waves of attacks until a minute into stoppage time.
The 27-year-old drifted in from the right wing and with the Iranian players massed in front of him somehow managed to bend a 25-yard shot into the far corner to maintain Argentina's perfect start.
June 25, Porto Alegre, Nigeria 2 Argentina 3
Messi continued his electric form and was man of the match for a third straight game after his double helped Argentina dispatch the African champions and secure top spot in the group.
Messi twice put his side ahead, his second goal a sublime free kick just before the break, and twice Nigeria equalised through Ahmed Musa before Marcos Rojo bundled the ball over the line at a corner five minutes after halftime.
ROUND OF 16
July 1, Sao Paulo, Argentina 1 Switzerland 0 (AET)
Messi turned provider in Argentina's opening game of the knockout stages, a tense affair against a Swiss side that caused the South Americans real problems and held out until two minutes before the end of extra time.
With penalties looming, Messi picked up the ball and started off towards goal before slipping the ball to his right for Angel Di Maria to clip a low shot past Diego Benaglio's despairing dive into the corner of the net.
July 5, Brasilia, Argentina 1 Belgium 0
Gonzalo Higuain ended a six-match goal drought at the perfect time for Argentina, crashing the ball past Thibaut Courtois in the eighth minute at the national stadium.
Apart from a couple of late scares, they held on comfortably against a disappointingly toothless Belgian team, with Lucas Biglia and Javier Mascherano working tirelessly in midfield, and Messi could even afford to squander a one-on-one with Courtois in the dying seconds.
July 9, Sao Paulo, Netherlands 0 Argentina 0 (AET). Argentina win 4-2 on penalties
The last-four clash at the Corinthians arena was always likely to be a nervy encounter and so it proved as both sides were desperate not to concede rather than going all out for goal.
Messi was well marshalled by the Dutch, only managing to cause danger on two or three occasions, while Mascherano and Biglia again had superb games in the Argentine midfield.
Ultimately, Sergio Romero proved the hero for the South Americans as he saved two spot kicks and Messi, Ezequiel Garay, Sergio Aguero and Maxi Rodriguez all netted theirs to send Argentina through to the final for the first time in 24 years.
- AP, with Reuters
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