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 Posted by Michael Cox
Jul 10, 2014

Key matchups of the World Cup final

Michael Ballack and Santiago Solari break down the potential starting lineups for both Germany and Argentina.

The previous three World Cup finals can be summarised neatly by three individual battles.

In 2002, it was Ronaldo versus Oliver Kahn, the Golden Boot winner getting the better of the Golden Ball winner in Brazil's 2-0 win over Germany.

The 2006 final was about Zinedine Zidane versus Marco Materazzi, the two goal scorers becoming involved in the World Cup's most famous red card shortly before Italy beat France on penalties.

And finally, the 2010 decider saw Spain's Andres Iniesta take on the Netherlands' Mark van Bommel: beauty versus the beast, with Iniesta netting a late extra-time winner.

What will be the crucial battle this time? Here are three contenders ...

Thomas Muller vs. Marcos Rojo

If Thomas Muller isn't truly a forward when he's deployed up front, he's certainly not a right-winger when used on the right.

Since being moved there by Joachim Low ahead of Germany's quarterfinal victory against France, he has stayed in extremely advanced, narrow positions -- often appearing more like a second striker than a wide forward.

This creates an interesting situation. Against France, it seemed like Muller was neglecting his defensive responsibilities, allowing Patrice Evra forward on the overlap to create overloads with Antoine Griezmann against Philipp Lahm.

Maybe that's what Brazil were attempting in the first 30 minutes of their embarrassing 7-1 thrashing by Germany -- but regardless of the intention, it turned into an absolute disaster.

Marcelo spent the game pushing high up the pitch, getting caught ahead of the ball as Brazilian moves broke down in the centre of the pitch. Muller remained in a position to attack, was constantly available for big switches of play from Toni Kroos, and combined with Sami Khedira to break into the left-back zone unchallenged.

- Hornby: Has the World Cup been that good?
- Honigstein: What's next for the Netherlands?
- Carlisle: CONCACAF wants more World Cup spots
- World Cup final: Germany vs. Argentina -- ESPN, Sunday, 7/13, 3 p.m. ET

It will be interesting to see the approach of Argentine left back Marcos Rojo this weekend.

Usually, Rojo plays an attacking game, but in the semifinal draw against the Netherlands he remained in much deeper positions, ensuring Arjen Robben didn't have space to break into.

In the final, he's again likely to play a more reserved role, and, considering he plays centre-back for his club side, Sporting Lisbon, should be capable of tracking Muller into deep positions.

Muller's an impossible player to mark, though -- he pops up with a crucial goal when he's at his quietest, and is always in the right place at the right time in situations defenders can't do anything about, like reaching fortunate rebounds. Rojo vs. Muller will be contested in a wide zone, but it's more like a centre-back versus centre-forward clash.

Bastian Schweinsteiger vs. Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi, left, against Bastian Schweinsteiger, right, promises to be an exciting on-field battle in the World Cup final.

Bastian Schweinsteiger always seems a level below the best deep-lying midfielders of this generation, players like Xavi Hernandez and Andrea Pirlo. Converted into that position, having been an inconsistent, flashy winger in his youth, he's never faultless in either aspect of his game -- his ability to dictate play when pressed heavily, or his defensive work.

The former won't be a problem. Leo Messi plays a much more relaxed role for Argentina than at Barcelona, more of an old-fashioned, languid, classic Argentine No. 10 role. He's not expected to press energetically, as became his forte at club level under Pep Guardiola, and instead remains in a position to receive the ball. Schweinsteiger should be able to find pockets of space, especially inside his own half, and play intelligent balls forward into attack.

It's his defensive work that will be tested, and put simply, Schweinsteiger needs to turn in the performance of his career against the most celebrated player of this generation. Germany's use of 4-3-3 means Schweinsteiger won't always receive assistance from Kroos and Khedira, who are likely to be tasked with pressing Argentina's deeper midfielders, and there will be situations in which Schweinsteiger must take responsibility solo.

Messi will drift over toward his old position on the right, as he did regularly during the tedious goalless draw against the Netherlands. This should be a concern for Germany, because their weak link is Benedikt Howedes, who hasn't looked comfortable at left back throughout the competition.

We know what Messi will do -- drift right, suddenly drop his shoulder and move onto his left foot, and either dribble directly or slide a through-ball between defenders. Schweinsteiger must show the defensive discipline to stop him.

Sami Khedira vs. Javier Mascherano

Two combative midfielders going head-to-head in something of a Clasico battle. They play different roles, but their meeting in the centre of the pitch will be crucial.

Mascherano has been the outstanding holding midfielder in this tournament, with some steady, reliable defensive performances capped by a quite wonderful display in the semifinal against the Netherlands on Wednesday. The lasting memory of the game was his last-ditch, last-minute tackle on Robben, and it summed up a scrappy, defensive-minded game -- exactly the type of situation Mascherano thrives in.

However, Mascherano hasn't simply been about defending, and the surprising aspect of his World Cup performance has been his distribution. He's played some lovely diagonal balls into attack, particularly noticeable in the games against Nigeria and the Netherlands. The likes of Angel Di Maria and Ezequiel Lavezzi have been thankful for Mascherano's decent service into attack -- which has been crucial considering the underperformance of Fernando Gago, usually tasked with that role.

Against the Netherlands, Mascherano dropped back and collected the ball in very deep positions, often between his centre-backs, to get away from the man-marking system the Dutch used in the centre of midfield. It will be fascinating to see how closely Khedira sticks to him -- the Real Madrid midfielder's pressing and forward running was one of the key factors in Germany's brilliant start against Brazil.

After a difficult, injury-hit season, a poor performance in the European Cup final when not 100 percent, and a slow start in Brazil, Khedira has returned to the level he showed throughout the 2010 World Cup, when he first truly broke onto the international stage.

In truth, this hasn't been a great tournament for central midfield displays -- full-backs have shone, No. 10s have taken centre stage and goalkeepers have earned plaudits. Few man-of-the-match awards have gone to central midfielders -- but one from either Mascherano or Khedira, and his side will probably lift the World Cup this Sunday evening.

Michael Cox

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He is based in London and writes the Zonal Marking blog about football tactics. He also writes postmatch analysis for the Guardian and contributes regularly for FourFourTwo. You can follow him on Twitter @zonal_marking.