Mario Gotze goal takes Germany to World Cup win
IT TOOK 113 minutes, a few squandered chances and a referee who seemed determine not to flourish a red card, but Mario Götze's extra-time goal finally won the World Cup final for Germany and their brilliant 21st century generation of footballers.
The fourth World Cup victory in the country's history, but the first for a unified Germany, was won in the second half of extra-time when André Schürrle broke down the left and crossed for Götze, a substitute, who did well to take the ball on his chest, swivel and strike a left-footed shot past Sergio Romero.
It was not to be for Lionel Messi, the world's pre-eminent footballer, who once again looked less than his best. As for the Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli might have sent off Manuel Neuer the otherwise brilliant German goalkeeper, for a high challenge on Gonzalo Higuain in the second half. Sergio Aguero and Javier Mascherano might also have gone for second yellow cards in extra-time. Argentina had the better of the game over 90 minutes, but it was Germany who came good at the very end.
The third World Cup final in a row to go to extra-time but this one was an engrossing game. There were chances, although not many, but most of all it was a good, open battle. Both teams believing that they could win it. Argentina had the more chances. Germany got the closest, when Benedikt Höwedes headed against the post late in the first half.
From Messi there were brilliant moments but too few to convince anyone that he is fully fit. It must be hard trying to win a World Cup final at half the pace. As with the semi-final against the Netherlands, he did not look quite the full Messi.
Argentina had the best of it over 90 minutes. It was not a case of them dominating, far from it, but they unsettled Germany from the very start and there were moments in the second half when Joachim Löw's team looked beleaguered. They had been forced to switch their team around to try to find a way through with Mario Götze replacing Miroslav Klose in the second half of normal times
Yet they came back into the game. Jérôme Boateng and Mats Hummels were excellent in defence. So too their opposite numbers, Ezequiel Garay and Martin Demichelis. Arguably the best was Javier Mascherano and this was a struggle fought out in every challenge, after the demands of the European club season.
Sami Khedira was lost to injury in the warm-up, the cruelest of fates on this, the biggest day in any footballer's career. He was replaced by Christoph Kramer who ran into Garay's shoulder after 15 minutes and, having been sponged down, and woken up, did not last until half-time. He was led away with a faraway look in his eyes that suggested he was not quite certain where he was or what he was doing.
Small things were not going the way of the Germans. They had one big escape when Higuain dragged a right-foot shot wide, the best chance of the half, but otherwise they were beset by a series of minor but significant mishaps. First they were opened up down the left, where Höwedes seemed to be targeted by Messi and Ezequiel Lavezzi. Then they picked up two bookings, for Bastian Schweinsteiger and Höwedes.
The sheer bloody-mindedness of Argentina's defence has been one of their strengths. They are led by Garay, a tough old general who fits seamlessly into a long historical line of Argentines who just won't let the striker pass.
In the first 10 minutes, Messi turned on the after-burners to get away for Hummels. Pablo Zabaleta found some space down German left too. Then Toni Kroos misjudged a header in midfield, lofted the ball towards his own goal and out of Hummels' reach and sent Higuain in. The memory of his shot, pulled wide, will live with Higuain forever.
He had the ball in the net nine minutes later and was almost back to the Argentine bench celebrating before he checked over his shoulder and saw the Italian linesman with his flag raised, correctly, for offside. Yet even so, it felt like Argentina had the first half on points. Höwedes misjudged a tackle on Zabaleta, went far too high over the ball and connected with his studs high up the leg. Another time, it could have been red, not yellow.
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Lavezzi ran at and through Germany again on 36 minutes. Boateng had to get a Messi cut back away in that last 10 minutes of the half, too. The Argentines looked confident and were getting the ball forward quickly enough that they did not find themselves out-numbered when they attacked.
Then, with almost the last act of the game, Höwedes headed a corner from the right wing against the post. It was the first time that the Argentinians had to rely on their own good fortune to survive.
Two minutes after the break and Messi got himself into one of those positions behind the defence from which he has racked up the industrial quantities of goals for Barcelona.
He was wider than he likes to be, which ruled out the trademark dink over the goalkeeper, but even so he normally finds the space between keeper and post. This time he rolled it wide.
Just before the hour, Neuer came out to clear a ball on the left side of his box, jumping with his right leg raised to punch and catching Higuain flush on the head. It looked a bad one, although the mercy was that Higuain was back on his feet almost immediately. For a goalkeeper who had hitherto barely put a foot wrong all tournament, it was a reckless and unnecessary challenge.
Messi cut in from the left on 75 minutes and whipped a left foot shot wide. Increasingly it looked like he was conserving himself for the game's big moment, if it was to arrive. Germany had two chances after the break, a nice passing movement that got Schürrle into the box, where he overran the ball. Then Kroos, on the edge of the area, side-footed wide.
In the first period of extra-time, indeed, the first minute, Schürrle had another chance on the left but Romero saved well. The substitute Rodrigo Palacio had an even better opportunity when Hummels missed the cross from the left but Neuer was quickly out and he shot wide.