This Round of 16 battle between Argentina and Switzerland had Messi written all over it. Argentina were strong favourites, but Switzerland were ready to stake their claim. Shaqiri would be the Swiss’ main man, and him and Messi stole the limelight in the previews.
From the kick-off, Messi took the ball from the ineffective Gonzalo Higuaín and tried to launch a move. Almost immediately, Ottmar Hitzfeld’s tactics were apparent; the Swiss swarming around Messi. The veteran coach had promised a well-prepared reception committee and he was true to his word. Within seconds Messi was being closed down by Admir Mehmedi. It set the theme of the half: Messi taking the ball and the Swiss crowding him out, sending him down cul-de-sacs. Inler, Behrami or Mehmedi were always there to greet Messi, take the ball and launch a move.
Switzerland’s game plan stayed within the bounds of legitimacy for the most part. They hustled and harried, disrupting Argentina’s moves, slowing their tempo. They looked to hit on the break. It seemed to be working well as Shaqiri and Xhaka were having a few good convertible chances, while Benaglio was pretty busy too, although Higuain was woeful as Lavezzi was invisible. Johan Djourou was terrific at the heart of the Swiss defence. Argentina’s own defence, a much-scrutinised unit, was grateful to their oft-criticised keeper Sergio Romero, who saved from Granit Xhaka and Stephan Lichtsteiner.
As the half closed, Romero read Josip Drmic’s intentions and caught the striker’s attempted chip and the neutral Brazilians were furious and understandably so, as he should have scored. The game seemed to be asking for a goal and it would not be coming anytime soon.
The second half was full of chances, but the game was easily the worst we’ve seen in the R/16.Argentina went close. Higuaín had a powerful close-range pushed over by Benaglio, and he was easily the best player there. Inler’s shadowing worked superbly and Di Maria was nowhere in the game. Mention to Rodrigo Palacio for his hairstyle, or lack of it.
We had extra time. From past World Cup experience, we would get drama in the last 30 and this game did not disappoint. It seemed to heading to penalties and but then “Messi” happened. Collecting the ball after 118 minutes, Messi angled his run across the Swiss box, glided round Fabian Schaer and stroked a perfectly weighted pass right to Ángel di María. Argentina’s No 7, whose Real Madrid form had hitherto deserted him in this stultifying game, placed the ball past a full stretched Benaglio. Di Maria scored but the nation’s gratitude belonged to Messi for his instrumental contribution. Argentina had the lead and the game was over.
Switzerland were dumped out and Argentina still had hope. For Hitzfeld, the denouement carried unwelcome echoes of events in 1999 in the Nou Camp that was to become Messi’s home. The former Bayern Munich coach even mentioned that stunning last-minute loss to Manchester United in the Champions League.4 unconvincing performances, but they were still one of the favourites and they would die at the table of 8, if at all. Marcos Rojo would be missing the next match due to suspension and Lavezzi and Higuain do not merit a start. Problems are several for the Argentines, the most glaring one being the lack of a crafty playmaker who will surgically provide for Messi. They would need to step up their game and stop relying on magical Messi for their victories as Belgium would ruthlessly tear them apart if such a drab and misguided midfield was present.
FIFA Man Of The Match: Lionel Messi
He stood up once again and proved to be decisive. The Barcelona star may have struggled to influence things now and then, but his lung-busting run set up the winner and he was the only Argentina attacker who looked like providing a goal.
Our Man Of The Match: Diego Benaglio
Has not looked that impressive in this tournament as a whole, but he was excellent against Argentina, producing a commanding display which did not warrant being on the losing side.
Our Flop Of The Match: Granit Xhaka
Highly unimpressive display. The 21-year-old committed numerous fouls and was exceptionally wasteful with his distribution.