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Messi takes on the mean machine in World Cup final

You may think of it as Man v Machine, Messi v Germany.

Lionel Messi is not the player he was   Photograph: Getty
Lionel Messi is not the player he was Photograph: Getty

And arguments can be made in favour of such a view, albeit with some caveats.

Argentina have scored eight goals in this World Cup. One was an own goal courtesy of Bosnia and one was Marcos Rojo's deflection off a corner against Nigeria. Of the other six, Lionel Messi scored four and helped set up the other two.

More to the point, Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella has laid out a side seemingly built entirely around Messi's needs. He has a centre-forward in front of him (Gonzalo Higuain) and another forward to clear space and track back (Ezequiel Lavezzi or, if fit, Sergio Aguero). There is a box-to-box midfielder offering support (Angel Di Maria until his injury, now Enzo Perez) and another to pass the ball (Lucas Biglia or Fernando Gago). Javier Mascherano is the defensive specialist shielding a back four and a goalkeeper who are almost exclusively preoccupied with not conceding. Amidst these other 10 guys, Messi does pretty much as he pleases.

Germany's machine status is an uncomfortable one because it brings to mind the stereotypes of old; ruthless Teutonic efficiency and all that. But don't think of it as a BMW, smoothly purring away on the autobahn. Rather, consider one of those vintage cars, whose amateur mechanic owner, Jogi Low, constantly works on it to keep it running. He is unsentimental about the parts; his main preoccupation is that they all work together and for each other. And when he detects a problem, he rolls up his sleeves and wades in, monkey wrench in hand.

They began the tournament with a clear notion of how they wanted to play, a Guardiolesque scheme that made sense with six Bayern players in the side, a false No 9 and Philipp Lahm tiki-takaing away in midfield. Death by possession.

It worked fine until the Algeria game where, despite Germany creating tons of chances, the centre-back pairing of Per Mertesacker and Mats Hummels were vulnerable to seemingly every ball over the top.

He fixed it come the quarter-final with France by making two changes - Miroslav Klose for Mario Goetze, Sami Khedira for Mertesacker - with cascading effects: Klose at centre-forward, Lahm to right-back, Jerome Boateng from right-back to centre-back and the Khedira-Bastian Schweinsteiger partnership in the middle of the park. Enter a 4-2-3-1 which stifled Les Bleus.

And then, with the same personnel, he tweaked it again, moving Khedira alongside Toni Kroos and creating a 4-1-4-1 designed to press and frustrate Brazil, resulting in the 7-1 that will live in infamy.

What strikes you about this Germany side is the selflessness and sense of collective. There is no single focus, but a rotating cast of stars who step up when it matters. Against Portugal, it was Thomas Muller, while Klose saved the result against Ghana. Manuel Neuer kept them in it against the Algerians, while Hummels sunk the French.

Yet the argument holds true of Argentina as well. Yes, Messi is the sole - working - attacking force. But he is not the reason they did not concede a goal in 330 minutes of knock-out football, against Belgium, Holland and Switzerland. That is down to a defence that has quietly grown stronger as the tournament progressed.

The recall of Martin Demichelis in place of Ezequiel Garay has given Sabella two centre-backs who are experienced and uncompromising and, as long as they are not marooned in the open field, match up well with the German front men: neither Mesut Ozil nor Muller is a speed merchant and Klose is now 36.

The full-backs, particularly Pablo Zabaleta, tend to sit, which means they are rarely caught out.

And marshalling the whole crew is Mascherano who is playing some of the best football of his career. Indeed, Messi may be Argentina's captain - a choice Sabella made shortly after his appointment, presumably to get him onside - and he may be the guy making the big decisions away from the pitch (for better or worse, say his critics) but come game time, it is Mascherano who takes over. His bellowing at team-mates was just about audible from the top tier of the Arena Sao Paulo on Wednesday. He was the first to the scene when Georginio Wijnaldum accidentally laid out Zabaleta and, of course, earlier it was Mascherano himself who appeared to be knocked unconscious in a clash of heads. His performances are the kind that would please both old school fire and brimstone gaffers ("Look at his focused ferocity!" "See how bad he wants it!") and tactical nerds ("Note his positioning ... it's perfect!").

Low will face another conundrum today and it is purely Messi-related. To what degree does he tinker with his side to contain Messi? The options range from deputising someone to man-mark him to simply noting his tendencies and taking positional counter-measures when he is on the ball.

In that sense, he has the luxury of players at his disposal who are both intelligent tactically and experienced. Benni Howedes, an extra centre-back deployed at left-back, comes in handy too in this situation, certainly more so than some marauder down the flank. Man-marking Messi has rarely worked in the past, but someone like Lahm, who can match him for quickness and guile, might get the job done, though, of course, it would mean changing the defensive set-up.

The thing about Messi is that, while his contribution looms huge in a two- minute highlights package, anyone who has seen him play, particularly in person, will tell you that he is a shadow of what he was. He is simply not right physically, there can be no other explanation for the fact that he routinely covers less ground than any other player, particularly off the ball.

This means, among other things, that Sabella can't press, which is in part why Argentina have to defend so deep. That is why the hunch is that Low will make no special allowances for Messi; simply put, it would mean sacrificing a player for the 98% of the game during which he is invisible. That other 2%? Well, you put your trust in your system and in Neuer.

Two other thoughts will likely be swimming around the back of Low's mind. One is that the last time he made wholesale changes to adapt to an opponent - rather than making the opposition adapt to him - it blew up badly in his face. In the Euro 2012 semi-final against Italy, he moved Ozil to the wing and inserted Kroos in an effort to gain more possession and Germany were thumped.

Something analogous happened in 2010, against Spain, also in the semi-final: that time it wasn't about wholesale personnel changes, but rather the adoption of a very defensive tactical scheme. It frustrated the Spaniards but ultimately left Germany no platform from which to attack and they struggled to create a single chance.

The other is that in many ways Low is at a crossroads. Counting 2006 - when Jurgen Klinsmann was in charge, but he was the football man - this is his fifth major tournament. And yet Germany have nothing but a runners-up medals at Euro 2008 to show for it. His job isn't in danger - on the contrary, barring a Brazil-like meltdown, the German FA want him to stay regardless - but there must come a point where you wonder why you are always the nearly man.

Argentina's World Cups usually end in controversy and recrimination of some kind; Germany's - at least of late - with a sort of quiet confidence that next time around they will come back stronger. Both, no doubt, are tired of this.

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