Part 2 of the quarterfinals match preview. This time, the focus is on the first of Saturday's match-ups. The early game pits Argentina versus Germany in a rematch of the 2006 World Cup Quarterfinals match. The second game has Spain facing upstart Paraguay for the right to play the ARG/GER winner. Everything you need to know is after the jump...
Saturday 9:00 AM Central - Argentina vs. Germany - Germany leads all-time World Cup series 2-2-1
Setting the Stage
This is the opportunity that Argentina has been hoping for since 2006, when Germany's then goalie Jens Lehmann batted away Esteban Cambiasso's penalty kick. The save preserved a shootout victory for Germany in front of a home crowd. That game, however, was also marred by an ugly incident after the game in which serveral players from both teams were seen shoving, throwing punches, and kicking. Reports out of Germany and the UK were that the Argentine's were "sore losers" -- however, niether country's soccer media is fond of Argentina and their coverage was decidedly biased. From my point of view, both team's players' were to blame for allowing things to escalate. Germany taunted the Argentine side, and Argentina did not hold back its frustration.
The week long wait for this game has given time for players to reopen the wounds and a war of words has erupted. The Germans, as usual, fire the opening salvos. Earlier this week, Bastian Schweinsteiger, the German midfielder had this to say:
"...the way they try to influence the referees, they have no respect. It's their mentality and character and we'll have to adjust."
The next day, Diego Maradona mockingly asked Schweinsteiger (in a thick German accent, no less) if he was "nervous" about facing the undefeated Argentine team. Then Germany's captain, Philipp Lahm has this to say:
"We have to concentrate on our own game. They are temperamental, we'll see how they deal with defeat on Saturday...They are impulsive, temperamental and they don't know how to lose."
Carlos Tevez has also weighed in, calling the German side less intimidating than the Mexican side Argentina dispatched 3-1 in the first round of the group stage.
Needless to say, there is a legitimate amount of bad blood between these teams, and I would not be surprised to see some of that make its way onto the pitch on Saturday.
I expect there to be a few key storylines that will decide this game:
1. Can Germany slow down Leo Messi and, just as importantly, can it do so with out forgetting about Tevez and Higuain? Who will handle the ball in the midfield for Argentina?
I'll take the luxury of asking two questions in one because they are interdependant. How well Germany defends Messi is going to go a long way to deciding the match. However, Argentina has shown that it can win even while teams bottle up Messi with multiple defenders. Higuain and Tevez are talented enough, as we have seen, to take advantage of opponent's mistakes and they can create opportunities for themselves to take devastating shots on goal. Germany will have to chase all three of these guys to stop the Argentine attack.
However, Germany can draw Messi out of the attacking third if Argentina does a poor job of maintaining possession in the middle third. Germany will try to encourage Messi to get impatient and to leave his position in the attacking third by making sure that Javier Mascherano is unable to receive the ball. Mexico used this strategy and it frustrated Messi throughout the game. Basically, during Argentina's build-up the defense keeps a man on Mascherano's hip and denies him the soccerball. Without Veron in the game as the second option, Argentina will have to give the ball to Di Maria or Pastore. But neither option gives Argentines much confidence because neither have the experience of Veron. If neither of these guys can bring the ball up, then the responsibility will then fall to Messi. If that is case, Messi will be taking himself out of the play by having relinquished his attacking position.
2. Can the Argentine backline and Javier Mascherano keep Germany from scoring on deep passes to Ozil, Mueller, and Klose?
If there is one glaring weakness on this Argentine team, it has been the play of Martin Demichelis. Demichelis has had a pretty rough go of it lately, as his national teammate Diego Milito shredded Demichelis the Champions League final a couple of months ago for two goals. Demichelis' woes continued at the World Cup, giving up a goal to South Korea and another to Mexico. Still, this criticism can be taken with a grain of salt -- after all Argentina has not had much trouble dispatching its rivals to this point.
Even so, the Germans present a unique threat because of how deadly Ozil, Mueller, and Klose have been in the World Cup. Germany does an excellent job of initiating the counter-attack, and they rely on set plays from deadballs to create chances. Once they are close to the goal, Germany rarely makes a poor attempt. Argentina's defense will be tested early and often, and they cannot be caught napping. Furthermore, Sergio Romero's play at the keeper spot vs Mexico left a lot to be desired. I expect Germany to score at least once off of a deep pass or goal kick.
3. Will Germany miss Michael Ballack in this game?
The biggest weakness I see on this German side is the lack of Michael Ballack in the middle of the pitch. Ballack has been the captain and point guard of this team for the last several years and I believe Germany is weaker because of his absence. Ballack had the ability to create scoring opportunities for Germany out of their "half court" offense, so to speak. Additionally, Ballack is a fantastic author of free kicks and corner kicks. In my opinion, Ballack's absence makes Germany all the more reliant on scoring off of counter-attacks and deep passes. Furthermore, if Germany is not able to maintain posession of the ball in the middle third, Ballack's absence will have been the likely cause. If Argentina wins the Time of Possession by more than 10%, it will translate to a resounding Argentine victory.
4. Argentina has the talent, but does Diego Maradona have the strategy to match?
A lot has been said about Diego Maradona in this World Cup and so far he has answered his critics. This game versus Germany, however, takes him to a whole new level. First, Maradona will have to start the game with the correct line-up. Does he keep Angel Di Maria in the line-up although his play was sub-standard versus Mexico? Does he start Javier Pastore in the middle, instead of Juan Veron? And what about DeMichelis? Should Burdisso start in his place or is Walter Samuel healthy enough to be effective. If Maradona makes a mistake with his line-up, then at best it costs him an early substitution. At worst, it could cost him a goal and possibly the match. Second, Maradona must manage his players, especially when it comes to the officiating. They should expect hard fouls, particularly on Messi. Maradona will need to keep his players focused on the game, and not the officials. Third, Maradona will need to find ways to get Messi the ball in the attacking third. Finally, Maradona will have to manage his substitution well and he will need to consider the prospects of a shootout in every move he makes.
5. Will Ozil or Messi be able to dominate the game?
Most fans agree that the player of the tournament will be on the pitch on Saturday. However, many disagree on whether that player is wearing the German or Argentine uniform. To me, Messi is the more dynamic player. However, Ozil will have less of a focus on him than Messi will. I believe both players will produce some exciting plays and both will score a goal.
Before the Cup started, I said that Argentina would likely fall in the quarterfinals. Now, that we know our opponent, I have gone back and forth on this question for the better part of the past week. On paper, I believe Argentina has the advantage. Superior talent to the '06 team with the emergence of Messi and Higuain and the steady play of Tevez. Additionally, the backline was a major issue in '06 and I believe it is better this time around. On the German side, I have to believe that the absence of Ballack will show and beacuse of it Argentina will be able to pick up some steals and have some opportunties. Unfortunately (or fortunately) games are not decided on paper and this game in particular is so close that it could be decided by a judgement call, a poor decision, or a fortuitous bounce.
My best guess is that this game will not be decided in the the first 90 minutes. I believe it will go to penalty kicks following a 2-2 tie, and somehow Germany will pull it out. But God, please let me be wrong.