Di Maria’s late winner puts Argentina into last eight

High-wire act survives again as South Americans strike late in extra-time to see off brave Switzerland

Swiss players  show their dejection as Argentinian players celebrate their victory after extra-time at the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo: Emilio Lavandeira/EPA

Swiss players show their dejection as Argentinian players celebrate their victory after extra-time at the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo: Emilio Lavandeira/EPA

Wed, Jul 2, 2014, 01:00

In a tense match won by a goal that just saved them from facing the lottery of a penalty shootout, Argentina revealed how risky is their strategy of relying on Lionel Messi to win this tournament.

It is a high-wire act that here looked like it might crash to earth. His side almost pathologically looks to him for solutions but he seemed unable this time to drag them over the line until he produced another late killer moment.

With extra time seemingly heading inexorably to penalties the Argentine No. 10, who otherwise experienced a frustrating afternoon, finally managed to conjure up the telling moment his team now seems so dependent on, collecting the ball and accelerating past several tired Swiss challenges.

Four times already he has scored himself in Brazil leaving his side’s campaign resembling a one-man show. This time he spread a pass out right to Angel di María who emphatically fired home to spark wild scenes with the Argentine bench sprinting across the Itaquerão pitch to join the celebrations.

Di María was on the score sheet for the first time at this World Cup but again the breakthrough had come from Messi.

But he is not so much charging towards immortality like Maradona before him but popping up at crucial moment to advance his claim. The genius is undoubted but despite collecting four man-of-the-match baubles he is still to fully command a game at this tournament.

Cruel twist

The goal was a cruel blow for Switzerland who had worked so hard to contain and increasingly frustrate their more illustrious rivals. It was not even the final cruel twist of the knife as they desperately sought to drag the game to penalties in a frantic finale that belied much of the previous 177 minutes’ paucity of entertainment.

With Swiss goalkeeper Diego Benaglio up for a corner substitute Blerim Dzemaili saw his header strike the foot of the post. The Swiss looked aghast but there was still time for a final free kick inside the Argentine ‘D’. The excellent but by now exhausted Xherdan Shaqiri could only fire his shot into the wall, the chance for the referee to blow the final whistle.

That was the signal for more jubilant celebrations and this victory allied to the late, late Messi screamer against Iran in Belo Horizonte will strengthen the belief of Argentina’s huge following that with him in the side the end of their long drought at international level is approaching an end.

The expectation surrounding this campaign was once again on display here. Though only 7,500 had procured tickets through Fifa, an estimated 70,000 Argentines had descended on São Paulo for the game.

Since Sunday many could be seen in various neighbourhoods across town holding up signs pleading for tickets and the volume with which they received their team indicated many had been successful in their search, and soon the stadium was rocking to their traditional chant of ‘He who doesn’t jump is an Englishman’.

But as the first half progressed early Argentine pressure dissipated and the Swiss increasingly looked comfortable in the game, quietening the Argentine crowd.

Ottmar Hitzfeld, who overnight had learnt of the death of his brother from cancer just before his last game as a manager, had described Messi as a problem to be solved. His solution was to mark him in numbers with midfielder Valon Behrami working tirelessly with his defence to crowd him anytime he got the ball.

Despite such attentions Messi still had the ability to cause moments of panic in the opposition box with his bursts of lightening pace and close control which prevented Switzerland ever completely enjoyig their ease.

But the worry for Argentine coach Alejandro Sabella is that the numbers marking of Messi did not create more space which his team-mates could exploit. They were too often pedestrian, predictable and sloppy, no offender worse than Di María who constantly gave the ball away to the mounting frustration of the Argentine fans.

Grateful arms

The Swiss even produced the half’s two best chances, Granit Xhaka having a shot from a corner which was saved by Serio Romero. Then a beautiful first time ball from Shaqiri set striker Josip Drmic free in behind the Argentine defence. Goalkeeper Sergio Romero looked as if he was about to come but thought better of it and was relieved when Drmic tamely chipped the ball into his grateful arms.

They would regret those misses as in the second half the Swiss were forced back, their raids becoming less frequent as Argentina turned up the pressure carving out several chances. But too often their players sought out Messi rather than take on some of the responsibility themselves. Frustration mounted and the Brazilians in the crowd could even enjoy a round of olés at some Swiss possession in extra time.

But then once again Messi intervened and kept his side up on the wire for another round.

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