COLUMN : J U S T S P O R T
By Veturi Srivatsa
Can Messi do a Maradona, screamed a headline to the 2014 FIFA World Cup final curtain-raiser. Lionel Messi partially answered the question by carrying the Argentines into Sunday’s final against Germany.
Not many would like to bet against Argentina when Messi is around, but he has to do much more than Maradona did in 1986. Of course, he, too, can get away with the Hand of the God if the overawed referees, gripped by fear of the great man’s presence on the field, give him a free hand, as some coaches have alluded for ignoring his fouls.
When a team is over dependent on one star performer the opponents mark him with diligence and here his teammates have to show some imagination to play around him to lend a helping hand.
One thing is for sure, Argentina have proved that they have the defence to keep any forward line in check. They have not conceded a goal in the last three games two of which were played over two hours with extra time coming into play.
Yet, many still think that Germany will roll over the South American finalists, on the evidence of their 7-1 massacre of Brazil, Yes, the Germans looked impressive right from the start, their 2-2 draw against Ghana notwithstanding.
Both teams can take heart from the two World Cup finals in which they met. In 1986, Maradona tilted the balance with his genius and four years later in Rome the Germans repaid the compliment with a 1-0 victory.
It only proves as many conceded, too, that in Europe it is difficult for a South American team to win the Cup and similarly the Latin Americans know how to scheme a victory.
This time the crowd at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro will naturally be behind Argentina – just as Neymar thinks that Messi should win. The crowd support will not be an insurance as the Brazilians found out.
Against Brazil, the Germans did not let it linger or did indulge in any intense exploratory probing. The German strikers found easy passage to the Brazilian goal and they seem to have had so much time that they were happy making a mockery of the defence by passing around in the goalmouth.
One can be sure that Germany will not have such luxury against the Argentines, certainly not when the hardworking Javier Mascherano is on the prowl. Against Brazil, the German midfield looked so confident not to let the ball possession go and when they moved in unison they spelt danger.
The opportunistic Milaslov Klose, the highest scorer in the World Cup with 16 goals from four editions, can spring a surprise from nowhere to be in the right position at the right time. Not far behind is Thomas Muller, an indefatigable runner.
The biggest advantage the Germans have is that three-fourths of their side is from Bayern Munich, though it did not work in the case of Spain who could pick from three top Spanish clubs.
The Germans will be wary of Mascherano, the real hero of Argentina before their goalkeeper Sergio Romero brought off those two brilliant saves in the shootout against the Netherlands, going down to his left and the other springing up to his right.
If free moving Mascherano had not run in to effectively slide and deflect the ball from an ominously positioned Arjen Robben, who was all by himself having outwitted the Argentine defence and was about to unleash a definite goalbound shot past a hapless-looking Romero.
It was seconds before the regulation time to end and had Robben struck the Dutch would have been in Rio and not the Argentines.
Maschareno is not a quintessential defender, who is desperate to do anything to thwart a marauding striker. He is precise in his slide, any other defender would have made a mess of the tackle and invited a penalty, more so with Robben, who has gained a notorious reputation of winning penalties, in the box.
It is not that the Argentines are depending only on Messi and Mascherano, they have Gonzalo Higuaín, Ricardo Palacio and Ezequiel Lavezzi, and are expecting Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria to be fit.
It may still not be a Messi game and Mascherano can hold the fort, hoping the Super Star will do a Maradona. The Germans think they have the firepower to make it count. One only hopes it is a match to remember Sunday.
-Veturi Srivatsa is Sports Editor of IANS and the views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected]