All the goals, the extra time winners, the penalty shootouts, the shock results, the exhilerating performances, the mental breakdowns, the moments of genius, the huge saves, the funny moments, the sad moments, the exciting moments - it all comes down to this.
This World Cup has been touted as one of the best ever - possibly the best ever, certainly the best in a while. We've seen teams self-destruct (Spain and Brazil) and teams outperform their wildest dreams (notably Costa Rica and Colombia, but the USA, Mexico, Algeria, and Iran have plenty to be proud of).
We've seen sublime displays. Arjen Robben slashing through defenders. Tim Howard putting up a one-man wall. James Rodriguez becoming a worldwide star. That's now in the past.
Here we are, on the last game of the World Cup, with only two teams standing. It's The Messiah vs. Die Mannschaft, the team Brazil hates vs. the team that humiliated Brazil, the team of destiny vs. the team of planning.
Germany are clear favorites, especially getting an extra day's rest and playing basically a practice session for the better part of their 7-1 annihilation of Brazil.
Argentina, meanwhile, had to fight what coach Alejandro Sabella described as "a war" against the Netherlands, over 120 minutes' worth. Lucas Biglia hurt his arm, playing a large chunk of the game with a bandage. Javier Mascherano may have had a concussion. Pablo Zabaleta played the majority of extra time with a bandage attempting to keep the blood in his lip from spilling onto the pitch. And Mascherano himself said he had to "tear his anus" (literally, one assumes) to make a last-ditch block on Robben.
The Germans have better individuals, bar Messi. Argentina do have Gonzalo Higuain and Mascherano, but after that, it's hard to pick a real star, considering Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria lack fitness and probably won't start. Germany have created top-class talent with machine-like regularity.
The Albiceleste have become a close-knit group, following Sabella's tactics well, working for each other. They have markedly improved over the three-year-long qualification process. Young players have developed steadily.
In 2011, when Sabella took over, the thought of Marcos Rojo, Lucas Biglia, Enzo Perez, Martin Demichelis, and Ezequiel Garay starting and winning a World Cup Semifinal was hard to conceive. Well, the thought of Argentina doing so, period, was hard to conceive. Yet here we are.
Germany seem on a golden path since 2010, though the keep tripping up when they're close. They thrashed Argentina but were denied in the semifinal by the Spanish. They were favorites for the 2012 Euro. Their re-match against Spain in the final seemed preordained, but they lost to an Italian team that was far from vintage in the semis. This year finally seems like their year.
The main man to watch, of course, is Messi. If it were anyone else in the world, the praise for him would be deafening. Instead, there has been curious criticism of the Barcelona star. True, he's gone a shocking two games without scoring or assisting. But that has more to do with the fact that rival teams are willing to commit two, three, even four men to stop him.
Argentina still have only played one game, out of six, in which they scored and Messi did not either score it himself or assist, the 1-0 win over Belgium.
Their defense has been praised as world-class, rightfully so, maybe, but part of their strength is sheer numbers. The Albiceleste have shielded themselves, playing essentially three central midfielders who can defend, with a fourth, Ezequiel Lavezzi willing to track back.
Messi facilitates this in two ways. One, he can create chances without support. Even in this four-versus-one matchup, he can change the game in a second. With better finishing from his mates, that would have been the story in the semifinal win over the Netherlands.
In extra time, he set up Rodrigo Palacio with a clear shot at goal, which he headed straight at the keeper. And a run, again in extra time, past defenders on the right wing ending in a beautifully chipped cross was met with a tame Maxi Rodriguez volley.
The second way Messi helps the defense is by attracting attention. Opposing teams are so keen on stopping him, they have few players left over to attack themselves.
In all probability, Messi will create dangerous situations by his own again. Bastian Schweinsteiger will probably be the man Germany assign to mark him. Schweinsteiger is a brilliant player, but he's hardly a world-class destroyer. Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos may need to help out, thus dulling their forward bursts that caused Brazil massive headaches.
Benedikt Howedes, who has been solid though considered somewhat of a weak link in the German team, will again play left-back. It will be interesting if Messi can drift into the right wing and beat him one-on-one. For Howedes, part of his problem at left-back is that he is right-footed. He will be more comfortable against a left-footer like Messi, but he'll have to watch the overlap
Germany's weakness, and they don't have many, is their lack of pace in defense when playing a high line. This is ameliorated by having the best sweeper-keeper in the world, Manuel Neuer, and by the replacement of the slower Per Mertesacker in central defense with the pacier Jerome Boateng.
Still, the loss of Di Maria is a shame for Argentina, as he is probably their fastest attacker, with the exception of Messi, perhaps. Still, Lavezzi is a speedster and could cause problems, as long as he improves on his end product. Elsewhere, Higuain is not the fastest, but he is by no means slow, and could dart onto a well-timed Messi through pass.
Di Maria will probably be on the bench, as his fitness remains sub-optimal. Aguero is closer to 100% but probably a supersub.
Perez, Di Maria's replacement, cannot possibly replicate the latter's explosiveness, but he is a lot more secure and solid with the ball. The most telling stats of the Argentine defense are the following: they have yet to concede in the knockout rounds, they have only allowed two shots on goal total (both from outside the box) in the past two games, and Sergio Romero leads the Cup in save percentage.
Simply, they don't allow many chances and they sweep up nicely when one leaks through. Still, they haven't faced a behemoth quite like Germany.
It will in all probability be a tight affair, with one moment or two deciding the fate of the championship. Two great teams square off, it's a shame only one can be crowned.
Argentina XI (4-4-1-1): Romero; Rojo, Garay, Demichelis, Zabaleta; Lavezzi, Mascherano, Biglia, Perez; Messi; Higuain
Germany XI (4-3-3): Neuer; Howedes, Hummels, Boateng, Lahm; Khedira, Schweinsteiger, Kroos; Ozil, Klose, Muller
Statistical notes: Argentina are ranked 4th in possession, Germany 2nd. Argentina take about twice as many shots per game, and attempt slightly more dribbles. Germany are taller, but Argentina win a slightly better percentage of aerial duels. Argentina are a slightly older team.