Five things to look out for in the World Cup final

The Rio Report

Ben Lyttleton highlights some of the things you need to look out for in the Sunday's World Cup final.

This is Messi’s moment

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The comparisons with Maradona have been stifling and yet here he is, Lionel Messi, Argentina captain, 90 minutes from winning the World Cup against the very same team that Maradona’s 1986 side beat in the final.

Messi is a different player to the high-presser from Pep Guardiola’s early days at Barcelona. The suggestion in Barcelona that he was saving himself for the World Cup needs to be revised now: he has just changed the way he is playing. Only Fred has covered less ground than Messi in six World Cup games.

Messi is now a player of moments and while he has not put his stamp on this tournament with an iconic performance in a knock-out game, there have been moments. In the group stage, he opened his account with a lovely solo goal against Bosnia-Herzegovina; against Iran, another moment of brilliance in the last minute won the match; a sensational free-kick against Nigeria, minutes after missing with a sighter, in the next game; in the Round of 16 against Switzerland, a match-winning dribble and pass for Angel di Maria.

Against Belgium, one geometry-defying pass to the same player (and a repeat of the image of Maradona faced with six Belgian defenders). Against Holland, shackled by Nigel de Jong, his moment came in the shoot-out when his penalty put Argentina ahead. It will always matter to some if Messi does not dribble past five players to score as Maradona did against England in 1986; the fact is, if he captains his country to World Cup success, in Brazil of all places, the argument over the world’s greatest player must be surely be over.

Mueller closing in on history

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Friday’s issue of L’Equipe ran a list of the 100 best World Cup players. Thomas Mueller was there, buried between Mario Zagallo and Wesley Sneijder, at number 32. For a guy who has only played 12 World Cup games, that might seem a high placing, and yet: Mueller has already scored 10 goals and has six assists. It took his team-mate Miroslav Klose four tournaments and 23 matches – at a goal per game average of 0.70 – to break Ronaldo’s record and net his 16th effort against Brazil.

“There are others who are better in the air, better with their right and with their left,” Mueller told Süddeutsche Zeitung before the World Cup. “My legs were never a problem. They’ve helped me, even playing the youth team. If you can’t just count on your physical attributes, you have to switch on your brain and make certain runs to evade direct tackles.”

He is rarely injured and has a habit of scoring in big games. As he put it: “Before, I was scoring regularly, but the goals did not have a great significance, because generally we were winning matches. Now when I score a goal, it is often decisive.” He is still only 24. One goal against Argentina could score him a second straight Golden Boot (he is one behind James Rodriguez for goals scored, but has one more assist), which has never been before.

Then there is Russia 2018. He will be 28. And Klose’s record, set only a few days ago, may tumble again. In four years, Mueller could break into the top ten of L’Equipe’s list.

Anyone want to buy Sergio Romero?

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In his previous shoot-out for Argentina, Romero could not stop a single penalty and Uruguay won 5-4 at the 2011 Copa America. Against Holland in the semi-final, Romero saved from Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder and in so doing, won the man of the match award. In Argentina he has been compared to Sergio Goycochea, who helped his country win successive shoot-outs in the 1990 quarter-final and semi-final.

“Heroyco” was the headline under a picture of Romero celebrating in national paper Ole yesterday. In the season before that World Cup, Goycochea was at Millionaros but did not play for the six months before the tournament. Similarly, Romero only played two and a half Ligue 1 games for Monaco last season. “It was a tough season for me as I didn't play as much as I wanted to. But I have worked hard to be here.”

Romero has conceded three goals in six games. He is not the main reason Argentina is in the World Cup final, and he is not the best goalkeeper in the world (that’s the guy at the other end of the pitch). But it’s not often a reserve goalkeeper starts a World Cup final – especially a reserve at a club who only won promotion back to the top-flight last summer. Will Romero start the season as a Monaco player? We will see.

Will Neuer take a penalty?

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Only two World Cups before this one have had four penalty shoot-outs in them – 2010 and 1990 – and we have seen some unique penalty tactics in Brazil. Louis van Gaal topped the lot, bringing on Tim Krul for Jasper Cillessen before Holland’s successful shoot-out against Costa Rica.

Fabio Cannavaro asked Danny Blind about it afterwards and the assistant coach said, “We have a terrible record from penalties so we thought we’d try something different.” After Holland lost its next shoot-out, to Argentina, Van Gaal, slipping into the regular Dutch approach, said: “Penalties are all about luck anyway.” Right.

There could be more history on the horizon if Germany’s final against Argentina goes to spot-kicks. No goalkeeper has ever taken a penalty in a World Cup match and Manuel Neuer, who scored for Bayern Munich in their shoot-out defeat in the 2012 Champions League final, could be the first.

Germany would have three takers sure to step up: Thomas Mueller, Toni Kroos and Phillip Lahm. Who else it might be could depend on the state of the game: would Miroslav Klose still be on the pitch? Would Bastien Schweinsteiger feel fit enough? Would Sami Khedira be too tired?

All these players are options. So is Neuer. He has proved himself the world’s best goalkeeper in Brazil, but he could bring something totally unique to the tournament too.

Will the referee keep control?

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The last time these two sides met in a World Cup final, back in 1990, referee Edgardo Codesal had a nightmare. He sent off two Argentine players and awarded a penalty to West Germany which Andres Brehme, who scored it, felt should never have been given.

In Brazil, there are far fewer yellow cards than in previous tournaments and, with the exception of Brazil’s game against Colombia, the clear FIFA directive to allow play to flow as much as possible, and not give out cheap yellow cards, has worked well. There have been far fewer refereeing rows than in previous tournaments. And so, for the last game, the focus will be on Nicola Rizzoli.

Howard Webb this week admitted that the World Cup final was one of the toughest games of his career. “I never refereed a match during which there were so many yellow cards and extremely difficult decisions to take,” he said. Let’s hope that Rizzoli won’t have regret any of his decisions after Sunday night.

Ben Lyttleton (On Twitter: @benlyt)

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