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World Cup Final: The lowdown on Argentina

Mascherano's steel has been as important as Messi's magic
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They've not been at their free flowing best, but Argentina's defensive nous has seen them through to the final. Regular Argentinian football columnist Ed Malyon assesses the mood in the camp and picks out his best bets for Sunday night...

"With just one goal conceded all tournament in the first half of games and none in the knockout stage, you wonder if Sabella has finally got his back four right. Backing the half-time draw at [2.05] is tempting with it likely to be an opening period where both sides are petrified to fall behind."


Road to the Final

Argentina were always blessed with a group that should have been straightforward and, perhaps more importantly, a friendly travelling schedule that took in none of Brazil's scorching north and confined them to the temperate areas near their own frontier.

This, of course, contributed to the remarkable support that followed them around the country this summer, and this Sunday they will invade Rio again, as they did for the opening group game with Bosnia.

That day, the biggest surprise was Alejandro Sabella reverting to a 5-3-2, a move that nearly cost them as Argentina laboured to a 2-1 win - bailed out by a brilliant Lionel Messi goal.

Fast forward to the second group game with Iran and while the formation was different, the story was the same: A phenomenal Messi strike breaking the most impressive of resistances from Carlos Queiroz's men.

The sky blue and white invasion of Porto Alegre saw Nigeria despatched 3-2 but with question marks remaining over the defence.

In the knockout phase, though, those worries have dissolved. Granted, the wins over Switzerland and Belgium weren't thrilling end-to-end encounters but Argentina have looked more solid, more assured.

Against the Netherlands they gave away one shot on target - in the 99th minute - as the Dutch also struggled to create chances, something that will be tested to the fullest in the final with Germany.

Team news

Angel Di Maria's fitness is Argentina's biggest concern ahead of the final, with the Real Madrid man injured against Belgium and still only jogging in training. His replacement Enzo Perez did more than enough in the semi-final to be a viable option if Di Maria doesn't make it, but Sabella will give Angelito until the last possible moment to prove his fitness. 

Sergio Aguero could replace Ezequiel Lavezzi if he continues to recover from a thigh injury, although the temptation remains to stick with the PSG man for his defensive contribution. In defence there are unlikely to be changes to the four that haven't conceded for 373 minutes. 

First and foremost, Sabella is a very loyal coach to his players and there are unlikely to be any surprises coming into the side for the most important game of his career.

Expected line-up: Romero; Zabaleta, Demichelis, Garay, Rojo; Perez, Biglia, Mascherano; Aguero, Messi, Higuaín. 

Mood in the camp

The camp is absolutely buoyant, understandably, after breaking a 24-year duck to reach the World Cup final. 

Javier Mascherano's sensational tournament continued against the Dutch, and since a clip went viral of him telling Sergio Romero to "make himself a hero" before the goalkeeper saved two penalties in the shootout, he has become the face of the fighting spirit in the side. 

Among the players the balance seems about right between disbelief over the fact they are actually there, the siege mentality resulting from press criticism earlier in the tournament and a confident bred by success.

The combination of a solid defence and Messi's capacity to win any game he plays in means that the squad know the possibilities, and that applies to Sunday night.

Tactics

Germany are the best side Argentina will have come up against in this tournament, but while their defenestration of Brazil lives in the memory, it was only a week-or-so ago that they were taken to extra time by Algeria.

The Dutch blunted their own attack by dedicating so many resources to keeping Messi quiet. It was successful in subduing the Argentina captain but they paid the price by losing all offensive threat. Robin van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar did nothing, and Arjen Robben only forged a single noteworthy chance - even that was mainly his own work. 

The Germans will play a 4-1-4-1, and the decision is whether they opt to put Philip Lahm on Messi or a specialist defensive midfielder. Lahm's performance at full-back on Tuesday was superb, but Jogi Low knows he has to find someone he trusts to attempt to shackle the world's best player. 

The biggest mismatch on the field on Sunday night will be Thomas Muller up against Marcos Rojo. The Sporting Lisbon man has stepped up in recent games, and Argentina remain the only side in the competition that haven't yet fallen behind in a match, but Muller's intelligent movement in from the right is a concern.

Best Bets

But with just one goal conceded all tournament in the first half of games and none in the knockout stage, you wonder if Sabella has finally got his back four right. Backing the half-time draw at [2.05] is tempting with it likely to be an opening period where both sides are petrified to fall behind. 

At the other end, only three players have scored in this World Cup for Argentina, with Marcos Rojo and Gonzalo Higuaín joining Messi on the list. Taking free kicks and penalties on top of his prowess in open play makes the Barcelona man a huge favourite to find the net in the final. The [3.0] price is not massive but it's the only tempting selection on the market. 

Recommended Bets
Back Draw in the Half-Time market at [2.05]
Back Lionel Messi to score at around [3.0]

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You've read Ed's lowdown on Argentina - now check out Bundesliga columnist Kevin Hatchard's take on Germany

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