Argentina advance to quarterfinals behind late winner vs. Switzerland
JUL 01, 2014 3:00p ET
Angel di Maria broke Swiss hearts with a late goal in extra-time to lead Argentina into the World Cup quarterfinals 1-0 on Tuesday night.
Lionel Messi was once again the man of the moment for La Albiceleste, picking out di Maria with an inch-perfect cross to set up a low, hard strike to the far post.
The result means that Argentina will now face either Belgium or the USA in the quarterfinal round -- but on the evidence, neither team will be too fussed about this South American side.
''It was a match that we deserved to win,'' said Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella. ''The first half was very even. They had two clear chances and after that the match was ours.''
For starters, it was something of a shock that extra-time was needed on Tuesday. Argentina had come into the game as one of the putative tournament favorites; Switzerland were disturbingly average. But the Swiss set out their lines to frustrate, with bodies around Messi whenever he got a toe to the ball. Manager Ottmar Hitzfeld -- who was managing with a heavy heart after his brother died at age 81 on the eve of the match -- was perfectly happy to foul early and often to break up the flow of play, and throttle the Argentine attack. It turned the game into a canter, with neither team really able to break off the shackles and create -- but it was a situation that served the Europeans better until Argentina found its footing in the second half.
''We made life very tough on them,'' said Hitzfeld after the match. ''They managed to keep their cool. It shows Argentina has a good team.''
What was also a surprise was that the only two real chances of note fell to the Swiss in the first half. In contrast, Argentina -- which had won each one of their group games -- didn’t have a single shot on goal. Granit Xhaka was teed up at the half-hour mark with Josip Drmic screening Sergio Romero, but the midfielder didn’t put his laces through it, allowing the keeper to recover and collect.
Drmic would then be sent through alone on Romero wide left with a glorious pass from Xherdan Shaqiri on the 40th minute, only to utterly flub his chance. With acres of space and more time than needed, he bizarrely decided to try a low-percentage shot, a soft chip over the keeper. With Romero stranded between his line and no-man’s land, it was a very poor choice, and it cost the Swiss a chance to break the deadlock. That was costly -- for had Drmic scored, the Swiss might have buried this game then and there.
It wasn’t until the hour mark -- and the onset of a certain amount of panic -- that Argentina ever looked like scoring. Marcus Rojo finally started pushing higher up the pitch, forcing Diego Benaglio into a save on the hour mark that almost caught the keeper going the wrong way. Di Maria, quiet through much of the match, started to make hay down the right flank. And then, Rojo made a run and a delicate cross that set up a fierce header from Gonzalo Higuain that Benaglio had to tip over his bar.
Messi finally found his shooting boots as well, gradually ratcheting up Argentine pressure, which culminated in a fine stop by Benaglio in the 78th. Messi fired a low cutter through the legs of three Swiss defenders, but the keeper was able to pick the shot out and smother it. But as time wound down, so did the chances. Di Maria whipped one at Benaglio deep in extra time that the keeper was able to palm away. And it wasn’t until a baffling play late that the Swiss collapsed.
Stretched on a goal kick, Argentina poured forward, breaking through the Swiss midfield and leaving Stephan Lichtsteiner for dead. Messi kept his head up, looked left and then slotted right, to leave Benaglio with no chance -- and Lichtsteiner in the net, eyes closed. He had coughed the ball up at the halfway line, and he arguably cost his side a spot in the quarterfinals with the error.
Blerim Dzemali tried to kick-start the Swiss back to life with Benaglio playing up the field like a striker, and he almost snatched the equalizer back with shot to Romero’s near post. Somehow Argentina kept it out, to the astonishment of all. Di Maria summed up much of the day’s frustrations when he had a chance to kill the game with Benaglio in the other half, chipping the ball beyond an open net.
''We know that this could happen to us, but we gave our souls out there on the pitch, we fought with our lives for each ball and we ended up as the winners,'' di Maria said.
Sabella is likely to face another torrent of criticism off this result. He has been prodded for his tactics and has already had to dismiss claims he and Messi do not see eye to eye. But this performance will not have many in Buenos Aires sleeping easy. Argentina were supposed to be conquerors. So far, they have been more like sleepwalkers.