The last month has been leading up to this moment: soon, Germany and Argentina will face off at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro. At the end of the match, the winners medals will be handed out to one team, the other will look heart-breakingly sad, and the champions' trophy will be lifted.
It's a fascinating matchup. Germany has been the most ruthlessly efficient side of this World Cup, breaking apart and casting aside several very good sides before ruthlessly battering Brazil. The combination of Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira, and a finally fit and in-form Bastian Schweinsteiger has been too much for most sides to overcome, and they've steadily and ruthlessly worked their way through to this final stage.
For their part, Argentina actually didn't look like the world-beaters everyone was expecting until the end of the group stage. Once they kicked in to gear, though, they've been tough to hold back. Even the Netherlands, who held them scoreless though ninety minutes and extra time, were only just barely able to resist a bevy of high-quality chances that Argentina was generating.
The focus of Argentina, of course, is on Lionel Messi, arguably the best player in the world right now who's playing better on the international stage than we've ever seen. Messi has always been fantastic for Barcelona, but there's always been something not quite there when he's suited up for the Albiceleste. This time around, though, we've seen Messi at his full powers, and holy wow has it been fun to watch.
Messi hasn't been the only good thing Argentina has had going, though. Gonzalo Higuain has, despite his unfortunate lack of goalscoring, been a key part of how the South American sides have gotten to the final. His passing game developed a lot under Rafa Benitez in the last year, and he's put that talent to use for Argentina's benefit over these past few weeks, acting as a pivot point in their attack and linking Messi to Angel Di Maria, Kun Aguero (before he got hurt), and every Napoli fan's favorite Argentine Ezequiel Lavezzi.
That passing touch combined with lethally effective runs has allowed Higuain to act as a disruptive element to Argentina's opponents, forcing them to pay attention to him and account for him even though his finishing touch has been lacking. That opens up more space for Argentina's other attackers to operate in, especially Messi, who has absolutely flourished thanks in part to Higuain's efforts.
The challenge will be using those combinations to break down the German defense, something that hasn't been an easy task in this tournament. Germany's back line has often looked to be their most vulnerable aspect, but their defensive midfield has been exceptional, and Schweinsteiger and Khedira can do a lot more to try and slow down the Messi/Di Maria combination than any of Argentina's previous opponents.
Argentina's biggest task, though, will be at the other end of the pitch, as keeping out the prodigious German attack will be a tall order for an Argentine defense that hasn't exactly looked stellar. Federico Fernandez had a couple good matches, but has been benched since the round of 16 for no apparent reason in favor of Martin Demichelis, who's been mostly terrible in his place. Fernandez' superior pace and athleticism, though, could be key in helping stave off the efforts of Muller, Kroos, and potentially the likes of Miroslav Klose.
This should be an astounding, well-balanced, and evenly-fought match. It has all the fixings to perhaps be the best World Cup final in recent memory, certainly outstripping Spain passing circles around Holland.