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Defenses set to dominate in tight cagey final

By Mike Collett

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - It might not be the way Brazilians wanted the World Cup to end but Sunday's final between Argentina and Germany will provide a nerve-jangling climax to the best tournament in history - even though the goals that have lit it up may not flow.

While the hosts are still coming to terms with their 7-1 semi-final humiliation by Germany and are preparing for the third-place playoff against the Netherlands, Argentina and Germany are gearing up to settle old scores

According to his agent, this will be Argentine coach Alejandro Sabella's last match in charge -- win or lose -- and he will leave the job a national hero if his team triumph in the third final between the European and South American heavyweights.

But whether this match is a high-scoring thriller like their 1986 showdown in Mexico City which Argentina won 3-2, or more resembles the dire spectacle of West Germany's 1-0 1990 win in Rome is difficult to predict.

The trend in recent finals has been for tight, cagey, defensive games with narrow, low-scoring victories and those finals of 1986 and 1990 reflect the dividing line in the finals story.

The six finals up to and including 1986 produced 27 goals, the six since 1990, when Argentina became the first team to fail to score in the final, have produced nine.

And there is every indication that, paradoxically, this goal-laded World Cup -- which has produced 167 goals so far and could beat the all-time record of 171 set in France'98 -- will be won by defensive steel rather than attacking brilliance.

TOP KEEPERS

Both teams have goalkeepers in the form of their lives with Germany's Manuel Neuer, probably the best in the world, and Argentina's Sergio Romero, putting aside his season on the bench at AS Monaco with some impressive displays, not least his two stops in the penalty shootout win over the Dutch on Wednesday.

In front of Neuer, Benedict Hoewedes has played every minute of the competition at left-back and Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng have looked impressive in the center of defense.

And since coach Joachim Loew re-positioned skipper Philipp Lahm at right-back rather than midfield, the defense has been even tighter.

Argentina's rearguard though has been even more impressive.

They have not conceded a goal for three successive matches since a 3-2 win over Nigeria in their last Group F match on June 25, and Sabella can also call on a solid, well-established formation.

Romero has gained in confidence and stature as the tournament has progressed while right-back Pablo Zabaleta, center-back Ezequiel Garay and defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano have all been impressive and started every match.

There is of course, another Argentine player who has started every match for his country -- Lionel Messi.

SATISFACTORY SO FAR

The world's number one player has enjoyed a satisfactory rather than scintillating tournament so far, scoring four times in Argentina's three group wins against Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria but failing to find the net against Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands in the knockout stages.

And while Argentina have struggled for goals since qualifying with one against Switzerland from Angel di Maria and one against Belgium from Gonzalo Higuain, Germany have flourished, with 10 in the last three games.

Thomas Mueller, who scored a hat-trick in the group stage against Portugal, now has five goals, but their total of 17 has been spread around the side.

Miroslav Klose, now the top scorer of all time in the World Cup with 16 goals, has two, Andre Schuerrle three, defender Hummels and Toni Kroos two, while, Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and Mario Goetze have also found the net.

But they have yet to come up against a defense as formidable as Argentina's.

Lothar Matthaus, the last German skipper to lift the World Cup in 1990, said this week: "There is an old saying in Germany that defenses win titles, while the attack wins the glory."

Those words could yet be borne out in Sunday's intriguing finale.

(Reporting by Mike Collett, Editing by Nigel Hunt)

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