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Lack of final flourish will not spoil a magnificent tournament

THERE are great World Cups.

Germany's Bastian Schweinsteiger, Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira and Mario Goetze celebrate after defeating France in their Maracana quarter-final. They return to that stadium tomorrow for the biggest game in world football. Picture: Reuters
Germany's Bastian Schweinsteiger, Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira and Mario Goetze celebrate after defeating France in their Maracana quarter-final. They return to that stadium tomorrow for the biggest game in world football. Picture: Reuters

There are great World Cup winning teams and there are great top goalscorers at World Cups.

There are also great World Cup finals, although not many, and there is an unmistakable sense of deflation and mild resentment when the world is subjected to a poor one. When Brazil won the final in 1994, but needed penalties to get across the line, the triumph felt a little ugly and tarnished. Bad enough that the 1990 final had been decided by a penalty in the 85th minute. For Brazil to win via a shootout, as Italy did in 2006, felt like an entire month of football had stumbled just as it was entering the history books.

This has been a tremendous World Cup, a rollercoaster of drama, characters, stories, and emerging and declining international forces. But World Cups are always a hostage to their climactic last fixture. Some of the fun and verve of the past 30 days and 62 matches will leak away if Germany and Argentina play out a chess match in the Maracana tomorrow evening, even if the pieces move around the board with great sophistication and intelligence.

Rio de Janeiro's historic arena - mercifully unsullied by the rotten Brazilian team setting foot on it at any point in the past month - will be a platform for arguably the greatest player the world has ever seen, the all-time top goalscorer at World Cup finals, one or two candidates to be the leading scorer at this World Cup, and the best goalkeeper on the planet. None of them guarantees a memorable final. An impressive collection of pyrotechnics does not always result in an outstanding firework display.

A month ago commentators were purring about the rich arsenal of attackers in Alejandro Sabella's Argentina side: Lionel Messi and his supporting cast, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria. Yet Argentina have scored only eight times. Messi has four and the other three have only two between them. They avoided penalties against Switzerland only by scoring two minutes from the end of extra-time, beat a flat Belgium with a solitary early goal, then eliminated the Netherlands via a shootout after a goalless two hours.

Over six games they have conceded only three goals. In the semi-final they did such an effective shackling job on Arjen Robben that the great Dutch attacker's face was later Photoshopped on to an image of Javier Mascherano's Argentina kit, with the light blue and white stripes as bars, imprisoning him.

Germany's rout of that woeful Brazil team was the sort of result which tends to have a grossly distorting effect on the way people anticipate their next fixture. Germany were excellent, irresistibly so, but they looked vulnerable in their 2-1 last-16 round tie against Algeria. They know perfectly well that they will not be putting seven past a back four of Pablo Zabaleta, Martin Demichelis, Ezequiel Garay and Marcos Rojo.

They would give everything just to score an unanswered one. Words like "efficiency" and "ruthlessness" are synonymous with German teams but it is almost a quarter of a century since they last won the World Cup and 18 years since their last major tournament victory.

Tomorrow night could be the culmination of the great root-and-branch restructuring to which German football subjected itself after their painful failure at Euro 2000. Their commitment to radical change and improvement entitled them to every accolade going and their display against Brazil - delivering one of the truly sensational results of the modern era - deserves further reward. But that does not mean this has the look of an open, free-flowing final.

Of all the array of highly admirable qualities the finalists bring to the Maracana only Messi has performed with his typical flair in Brazil (and only in the group stage). Germany are quick, intelligent, they move the ball beautifully, they are strong from back to front and they are usually ruthless, but they are not flamboyant. "Even when they were 5-0 up against Brazil you never saw anything flash," said Dietmar Hamann, the former Liverpool and Germany midfielder.

After a thrilling, wide open set of last 16 games, teams tightened up. Then, after a goal glut in the Brazil v Germany game, there was the the second semi-final, a goalless night between Argentina and the Dutch. The tension was obvious.

There have been 21 goals in Germany's half-dozen games but only 11 in those of Argentina. Both teams have been miserly at the back. Defending is an art - what Brazil would give to be masters of it - and the finalists' proficiency at it suggests this final might not live up to the matches which preceded it, or live up to the expectations of the billions who will tune in and sit back, waiting to be entertained.

Coaches Joachim Loew and Sabella will be untroubled by the manner of victory. Germany are desperate to reclaim their position as world champions. Argentina long to twist the knife in their rivals, Brazil, by winning the World Cup in the Maracana five days after the 7-1 humiliation. There have been tens of thousands of Argentina supporters in Brazil throughout the tournament and they have mingled openly with the locals. They are under surveillance, though. When their games were being shown in the FIFA Fan Fest on Copacabana beach, and hordes of their fans were on the sand to watch on a big screen, vanload after vanload of Brazilian riot police were discreetly positioned up nearby side streets, just in case.

Happily there has been no trouble so far. It has been a momentous World Cup and a great one.

Let's hope that is remembered if Germany and Argentina choke the life out of each other. Two pretty evenly-matched, well-coached teams, operating under intense pressure, tend to cancel each other out and allow few chances.

Expressive play could be suffocated but their form points to Germany getting a grip of the World Cup again, just.

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