Di Maria sparks Argentina to win over Germany in World Cup final rematch
Germany was wearing a new shirt with a fourth star to mark its recent World Cup win, but the champion was comfortably beaten by Argentina in Dussledorf on Wednesday night. In a rematch of July's World Cup final, Angel di Maria inspired the visitors to a surprise success with three assists and a goal in the 4-2 win, marking Germany's first loss in 15 months.
While the result won't do anything to alter the events or outcome from July 13 in Rio de Janeiro, it did yield some talking points. Here are three thoughts on the match:
• Who needs Lionel Messi when you have Angel di Maria?
This game was never about revenge for Argentina, but it was certainly a decent start for its new coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino. Despite last week's sacking of River Plate coach Carlos Bianchi, or the rumors denied by Javier Mascherano – that Lionel Messi was picking and choosing his international matches – Martino was under no pressure, and, with his air of a benevolent uncle, was a universally popular appointment.
He's had quite a week: on Monday, he met the Pope in Rome, and Wednesday, smashed the world champion, starting with seven of the 11 that lost in Rio 52 days ago at the Maracana. Argentina showed the hallmarks of a typical Martino side – quick pressing, high tempo, and vertical passing and caused the new-look Germany defense all sorts of problems.
Di Maria, playing on the right of a 4-3-3, was the architect of Germany's downfall. In a torrid first half for left-back Erik Durm, Di Maria twice found space to set up goals; after 20 minutes, he curled a pass with the outside of his left foot for Sergio Aguero to cushion the ball home. Just before halftime, Di Maria centered to Erik Lamela who volleyed brilliantly from 16 yards out.
Within two minutes of the second half, Di Maria's in-swinging free kick evaded the German defense and was headed home by Federico Fernandez. Three minutes later, the Manchester United winger broke past Durm on a 40-yard run and chipped the ball over Roman Weidenfeller to make it 4-0.
Martino's target is to win the 2015 Copa America in Chile, and, as when he was at Barcelona, his chief task was expected to be how to get the best out of Lionel Messi when he plays. That plan might need some revision, as Di Maria could be just as central to Martino's plans. Lamela also did well and others, like Mauro Icardi and Juan Manuel Iturbe might get their chance in the future.
But when Aguero opened the scoring, you couldn't help but wonder if the outcome had been different if he, and not Gonzalo Higuain, had that excellent chance in the World Cup final. Indeed, what might have happened had Di Maria not been injured for the final? Martino is in a fortunate position to take over a side that has such a talent pool. With Messi to come, its status as World Cup runner-up, and indeed this result, Martino has little margin for error and high expectations when it comes to next summer in Chile. Argentina last won a trophy in 1993. Martino has nine months to tinker with his formula.
• Germany's No. 9 hunt continues
Maybe the world champion has a weakness after all. At the World Cup, Miroslav Klose hid it well, as the 36-year-old entered the record books after scoring two goals in Brazil to top the World Cup scoring charts, but behind him, there was no natural center forward successor. Now Klose has retired, Mario Gomez, injured last season, had first option for the position. But Gomez fluffed his lines against Argentina, squandering three chances in the first half, including two opportunities from close range when it seemed harder not to score.
This was tough for Gomez, and not dissimilar to the nightmare he endured at Euro 2008, when he missed from eight yards four minutes into the opening game against Poland, and against Austria, somehow hit the ball over the crossbar from two yards out. Coach Joachim Low changed his system after that, which in part led to the 4-2-3-1 Germany operated out of to win the World Cup.
Gomez is now 28 and short of game-time, as he only played nine times last season. That Gomez's replacement, Mario Gotze, scored for Germany shortly after Andre Schurrle had pulled one back was little surprise, and the question for Loew now will be whether to keep faith with the Fiorentina forward. With the coach's continued rejection of Bayer Levekusen's Stefan Kissling, he might be better off playing Marco Reus or Thomas Muller in that position. This was a game to forget for Gomez.
• Schweinsteiger must be a playing captain
Let's not overreact to this result. It was a friendly match, and Germany only started with four of the players that began the final in Rio. Germany is the world champion; Argentina is not. And if this game taught us anything, it's that Germany's second 11 is not quite ready to take over from the senior crew. Christoph Kramer, who lasted 30 minutes of the final before going off with a concussion, Matthias Ginter, Kevin Grosskreutz and Durm had 13 caps between them before this game, and their inexperience showed.
Ginter and Durm struggled with the movement and pace of Argentina's front three, and, without Bastian Schweinsteiger in midfield, Argentina was able to control the ball. But the absence of Schweinsteiger will lead to more questions for Low, who announced before the game that the Bayern midfielder would succeed Philipp Lahm as captain. No one was surprised by that; Schweinsteiger has 108 Germany appearances behind him and a close relationship with Low, who said: "He is an absolute leader."
However, the Bayern powerhouse is 30 and only started 23 Bundesliga games last season. Since 2010, he has played in only half of Germany's international fixtures (in 2012-13, for example, he played only three of the 11 games that year). Which meant that the identity of Low's vice-captain was going to be the really interesting part of his pre-match press conference. Except, he did not name one.
Instead, the vice-captaincy will be shared among a council of senior players, which incorporates Manuel Neuer, Thomas Muller, Sami Khedira, Lukas Podolski and Mats Hummels. Neuer got the job this week and he will keep the armband for Sunday's Euro 2016 qualifier against Scotland. When he went off at halftime, Podolski took over the armband.
In October, it could be any one of the others who steps to the plate. It is to Low's great credit that he has implemented a system where there are so many senior players. In the last half-hour, Germany reduced the score-line to 4-2 and came close to making it three: Sergio Romero made a great save from Marco Reus which clipped the inside of the post. There should be no panic in Germany after this result.
Scotland is Germany's next competitive opponent on Sunday, and given Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels are set to return in defense, Germany should win comfortably. And yet the world champion missed Lahm, and it missed Schweinsteiger.
"I have my own way of leading and that has evolved significantly in recent years," Schweinsteiger told German federation's website this week. "I have had great success on the field, but I know now I will have new responsibilities, especially away from the pitch."
On the pitch, though, it would help if Schweinsteiger was more available.