Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi watches and waits for final chance to be a legend like El Diego

Germany are favourites to triumph in the Maracana tomorrow but the Argentina captain needs just one opportunity to strike

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The Independent Online

At the previous World Cup finals in South Africa, Lionel Messi was subject to the kind of pre-match warm-up routine that no one on the current Argentina staff would dare suggest to him now. Messi would stand still while the ball was deliberately struck past him, too quickly for him to be able to react, and he was obliged to scurry off, retrieve it and pass it back to the man who had devised the exercise.

That was Diego Maradona. He was manager and, to be frank, the whole operation looked like a disaster waiting to happen. In football, reputations mean a lot, and no one’s reputation is bigger than Maradona’s and nowhere more so than in Argentina. If it was Maradona’s wish that Messi should chase after footballs like a 15-year-old triallist – Carlos Tevez also submitted himself wearily to the same routine – then Messi would chase after footballs. Alejandro Sabella, the current coach, would no more suggest doing the same, as he would serve up caipirinhas at half-time.

As tomorrow’s World Cup final approaches and Messi attempts to inspire his Argentina team against Germany in the way El Diego did 28 years ago in Mexico, it is worth remembering just what a giant, figuratively speaking, he is attempting to follow. Maradona looms over the modern game whether you happen to come from Rotherham or Rosario, Messi’s home city that has an extraordinary lineage of footballers and freedom fighters.

In a hotel off Ipanema beach yesterday, the English footballer who knows Maradona best, Gary Lineker, recalled the one time he played on the same side as the Argentine. That was the Football League centenary game in 1987 involving a Rest of the World XI for whom Lineker, by then at Barcelona, played. Many of the 1986 World Cup stars, like Michel Platini, Paulo Futre and Josimar, turned up but there was no doubt who was top billing.

When Lineker describes the moment that Maradona walked into the dressing room he mimics the open-mouthed, star-struck reaction on the faces of his team-mates. “Diego got bored in the warm-up and he juggled the ball to the halfway line,” he says. “He just booted the ball 50 feet into the air and, when it came down, volleyed it back up, first touch. He did it about 12 times and he never had to do anything more than walk. The next week at Barcelona we all tried it. The best anyone did was about three and there was a massive sprint each time to reach the ball.”

Messi has the presence. There is no doubt about that. His team-mates defer to him constantly, even Javier Mascherano, watching their captain’s poker-face for that hint as to his mood or an instruction.

Lineker says he suspects that the No 10 is not fully fit. “Whether it is tiredness after a long season having suffered from hamstrings, but there is very little movement,” he says. “He has done magical things at this World Cup and he is largely responsible for them being in the final but the last two or three games he has done less and less.”

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A guide to the World Cup final

Watching Messi, he looks like a man primed for his moment but also one who knows that he cannot afford to waste energy on the things lesser mortals can do for him. That means less pressurising of defenders, although he did put the wind up the Netherlands with one fierce press at the end of the first half on Wednesday. Instead, he watches and he waits for the one moment that could be the greatest of his career.

In many respects, that takes more courage. Messi could run himself into the ground to make himself look better. He could exhaust himself chasing lost causes, as Wayne Rooney so often does. Or, mindful that the chance may never arise, he can wait, conserve his energy for the opportunity that might win Argentina the final.

In a World Cup where the standard at the very top has been relatively mediocre, Argentina have come through thanks to Messi, Mascherano, Angel di Maria and comprehensive defensive organisation. Their defence, which has been their mainstay, has been changed for injuries and suspensions over the course of their six games, with Martin Demichelis now taking the place of Federico Fernandez. Only Pablo Zabaleta and Ezequiel Garay have played every game.

It is hard to resist the prospect of Argentina winning, simply because of the completeness it would add to Messi’s career. He was 27 last month. At the same age, Maradona was already 17 months on from his triumph at the 1986 World Cup finals. It seems unfair to have to compare Messi to him. If he had been Colombian or Uruguayan, he would be out there on his own, but each country has its own heroes and Maradona belongs to Argentina.

Germany are the favourites and while the Maracana will be full of noisy, flag-waving Argentines, Die Nationalmannschaft will line-up in that arena the way that German teams always seem to do. The Latin American emotion that will fill the place will be irrelevant to them. Somewhere on those DFB briefing sheets and in their sensible team meetings they will have covered all that. It cannot be any more intense than it was before their demolition of Brazil in the semi-final.

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Muller has five goals in the tournament, one less than top scorer James Rodriguez

Thomas Müller said yesterday that at half-time in the semi-final the Germans, as is their way, took the dispassionate view that they could conserve energy and also go easy on their broken hosts. “It was about not trying to humiliate our opponents or showboating. We wanted to carry on playing normal football and not get arrogant, but that’s quite normal – it was the players’ initiative. We were able to concentrate on preserving energy and avoiding injuries in the second half.

“I don’t know what kind of a game it will be on Sunday,” Müller added, “but I don’t expect it to be 5-0 at half-time. That would be nice, but it’s probably going to be tight like it was against Algeria or France. But even if it’s tight then we will have to try and score from a set-piece because, by now, we have become the king of the set-pieces.”

The Germans have decided, their general manager Oliver Bierhoff announced, only to celebrate with a parade in Berlin if they win tomorrow. In 2006 they held a parade at the home World Cup for finishing third. In 2008 they did it despite having been runners’ up to Spain at the Euros. “This time, we’ve decided only to celebrate together with our fans if we win the title,” Bierhoff said, “and we are absolutely adamant that we will do it.”

It feels like the moment for Germany, the coming team of the last four years. But this is football’s great moment of truth, it occurs just once every four years, and of any player on the pitch, Argentina have the single man most capable of grasping it.

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