Angel Di Maria edges Argentina past Switzerland
Lionel Messi sets up late winner in extra-time after finally finding some space
Switzerland’s goalkeeper Diego Benaglio fails to save a shot from Argentina’s Angel Di Maria as he scores the winning goal in the second half of extra-time in the World Cup Round of 16 in Sao Paulo. Photograph: Paul Hanna/Reuters
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. And then perhaps try once more. In the end, if you’ve got a wriggling, fleet-footed genius of a No 10 in your team, the chances are it’s probably going to come off.
With 117 minutes gone in this World Cup last 16 match in São Paulo, and Argentina and Switzerland still goalless, Lionel Messi picked the ball up – as he had so many times already – in a central position 40 yards from goal.
Finding a pocket of space in front of him, for perhaps the first time in a gruelling, claustrophobic World Cup knock-out game, Messi spotted the moment, as he has seemed to do with uncanny timing at this World Cup.
Accelerating away with that familiar little bunny-hopping sprint, Messi skipped past Fabian Schaer, gave Ricardo Rodríguez just enough time to find himself sucked in from left back and slipped the ball to Ángel Di María, the space a gift from his No 10. Di María shot low and hard first time into the corner.
There was still time for Switzerland to come desperately close to an equaliser, Blerim Dzemaili heading against a post from a corner in added time and then watching the rebound bounce wide off a knee. But it had been a lovely winning goal, almost two hours in the making at the end of a gruelling match between two teams that revolve almost entirely around their main attacking stars.
At the final whistle Argentina’s fans dissolved into a frenzy of bare-chested flag-waving joy. This disjointed team of talents continue to edge through the rounds at Brazil 2014. They have some obvious flaws but they have one thrillingly relentless strength and from here they will take some stopping.
For all the clamour of the game’s final moments the noise inside the Arena Corinthians before kick-off was relatively mild after the choral din of Argentina’s previous matches, a consequence perhaps of the sheer mountainous size of this open-sided stadium. With locals and blue-and-white-shirted Argentinians mixing happily enough in the stands, there was a strange kind of lassitude to the opening minutes as Argentina kicked off in the lunchtime sunshine. The most intriguing aspect was the shift in Argentina’s starting shape, yet another rejig of the pieces around Alejandro Sabella’s No 10, captain, chief creative genius and assistant selector.
Having already switched between 5-3-2 and 4-3-3- Sabella rummaged around in his tactical suitcase and came up here with something perhaps honed during his time at Sheffield United, a classic 4-4-2, with Ezequiel Lavezzi, in for Sergio Agüero, starting on the right wing and Messi in a familiar roving No 10 role behind Gonzalo Higuaín.
Before this match Ottmar Hitzfeld was asked how he hoped to stop Messi. “Wait until tomorrow, you will see,” was his answer, and the Swiss duly resumed their customary high-speed pressing game in the more hospitable air of breezy São Paulo, hustling nicely and launching the odd early attack, as Xherdan Shaqiri twice twisted and turned with purpose down Argentina’s right flank.
Recast in a four-man midfield, Javier Mascherano was able to concentrate on his defensive pivot duties, with Fernando Gago alongside him in the passer’s role, but together they are a notably flat central midfield, sitting deep and leaving Argentina short of dynamism between midfield and attack, a problem that seemed to run through the entire 120 minutes, even as the game congealed into a neck-cricking affair of slow-burn pressure, a game of dogged attack versus dogged defence.
Two or three times Messi received the ball and found himself confronted by three or four defenders shoulder to shoulder like rugby forwards, asked to produce a moment of wriggling genius out of his hat. “Give it to Messi” is very clearly the plan: and so Argentina’s players give it to Messi. The great shame, the one grand flaw in all this is that Messi can never give it to Messi.
In a slow-burn first half it took 25 minutes for Argentina to create a chance, Higuaín heading over the bar from Messi’s whipped free-kick. It was the Swiss who had the first really tempting opening two minute slater, Granit Xhaka shooting hard and low but straight at Sergio Romero from Shaqiri’s cutback.
And with 33 minutes gone it was Shaqiri, resembling in his square-shouldered red shirt a kind of footballing Mr Strong, who had the locals in the crowd on their feet with a lovely little gratuitous display of keep-ball trickery by the touchline – a rare moment of old school Brazilian-style football in these parts – for which he was duly bundled to the ground.
After the break Shaqiri continued to look the liveliest player on the pitch, scuttling into space down the left like a malevolent little red-shirted crab and cutting the ball back for Josip Drmic to shovel a shot over the bar. At times in São Paulo Shaqiri resembled a Bayern Munich player on a coaching course with some promising hopefuls.
Approaching the hour mark Argentina were having their best spell with Lavezzi and Di María both leaving their flanks and foraging with some much-needed urgency through the middle. And suddenly Switzerland were penned in, that midfield pressing unit tiring a little.
The chances came in a steady drip-drip but never a gush. With 12 minutes left Messi, again breaking from a deep central position, beat two players and shot low and hard only to see Benaglio make a scrabbling save.
And that was pretty much that for the 90 minutes as the apparent inevitability of extra time duly arrived. Sabella rejigged again, with Rodrigo Palacio coming on to play on the left in a 4-3–3 but it was Switzerland who had the locals in the crowd on their feet shouting olé in taunting fashion as Shaqiri produced some entertaining nutmegs.
Until, that is, that final clenching moment with three minutes remaining, capped by that decisive finish from Di María.
ARGENTINA: 1 Sergio Romero; 4 Pablo Zabaleta, 17 Federico Fernandez, 2 Ezequiel Garay, 16 Marcos Rojo (23 Jose Basanta, 105 mins); 5 Fernando Gago (6 Lucas Biglia, 120 mins),14 Javier Mascherano, 7 Angel Di Maria; 10 Lionel Messi; 22 Ezequiel Lavezzi (18 Rodrigo Palacio, 74 mins), 9 Gonzalo Higuain. Yellow cards: Garay, Rojo.
SWITZERLAND: 1 Diego Benaglio; 2 Stephan Lichtsteiner, 22 Fabian Schaer, 20 Johan Djourou, 13 Ricardo Rodriguez; 11 Valon Behrami, 8 Gokhan Inler; 23 Xherdan Shaqiri, 10 Granit Xhaka (16 Gelson Fernandes, 66 mins),18 Admir Mehmedi (15 Blerim Dzemaili, 113 mins); 19 Josip Drmic (9 Haris Seferovic, 82 mins). Yellow cards: Xhaka , Fernandes.