ARGENTINA AND GERMANY face each other in a World Cup final for the third time at the Maracana tonight, with the Barcelona star Lionel Messi on the brink of joining the pantheon of all-time greats.
One of the greatest World Cups in history comes down to a final between two countries with mixed memories of playing against each other for the biggest sporting prize on the planet.
In 1986, Argentina beat Germany in the final in Mexico. Four years later, Germany were crowned world champions after beating the South Americans.
Now they prepare for a third final against each other in a game that pitches the best European side of the tournament against the best from South America, as Argentina look to win at the home of their greatest rivals Brazil.
It is also a match that provides Lionel Messi a chance to seal his position in the pantheon of football greats. He has won everything there is to win at club level, scooped up four Ballon d’Or awards and now stands one match away from emulating Diego Maradona by guiding Argentina to World Cup glory.
Messi has been the main man for the Albiceleste during the tournament, scoring four goals so far and creating Angel Di Maria’s extra-time winner in the last 16 victory over Switzerland.
The Barcelona man is likely to again find himself without the support of Di Maria for the final after the midfielder missed the semi-final against the Netherlands with a thigh problem.
Di Maria has been doing some training as he desperately tries to return to action, but Sunday’s final is expected to come too soon. Sergio Aguero, though, is in contention for a starting spot after coming on as a substitute against Holland on his return from a similar muscle injury.
Standing in the way of Argentina’s quest for a third World Cup triumph are Germany, who arrive in Rio de Janeiro fresh from a 7-1 massacre of hosts Brazil in the semi-final and brimming with confidence.
For Germany, this final represents the finish line following the restructure of the country’s football set-up in the wake of a dire performance at Euro 2000. For all the plaudits they have received in recent years, the team has not yet won an international trophy.
Joachim Low’s side will start as slight favourites following the brutal demolition of Brazil and given they have come out on top in their last two World Cup encounters against Argentina, winning on penalties in 2006 and thrashing the side coached by Maradona 4-0 in 2010.
Germany are a ruthless, efficient machine with no obvious weaknesses and several options in every position.
Without a star player in the mould of Messi or Neymar, the Europeans have relied on Thomas Muller to lead their attack. The Bayern Munich man has scored five goals in this World Cup and is one short of drawing level with James Rodriguez to win the Golden Boot, just as he did in South Africa four years ago. He has also never lost a match when playing against Messi.
Low is expected to name the same team that started against Brazil as Germany attempt to become the first European country to win a World Cup on South American soil.