SAO PAULO – 2nd rd: Argentina 1, Switzerland 0 after extra time
—- Leo Messi to the rescue again. So their captain, inspiration and class-of-his-own talent did not strike the goal which saved Argentina from the agony of a penalty shootout. But the Barcelona forward did find the gap and then the perfect moment to release Angel Di Maria five minutes from the end of extra time.
Argentina’s marauding blue-and-white striped fans believe with increasing fervour that they will be in the Maracana for their destined final against Brazil. But, for that to occur, their others players need to rise to the level of their two Liga-based colleagues.
Messi’s goals lifted Argentina through the group stage and Di Maria’s tireless running provided both a decoy and a support. But, with Sergio Aguero lost to injury, someone else needs to raise their game.
Switzerland could so very nearly have been in the quarter-finals themselves and no-one would have begrudged Ottmar Hitzfeld who led his team despite learning, overnight, of the death of his brother back in Europe.
But for all their bravery the Swiss, whose confidence increased as they discovered that their opponents were merely human, were heavily dependent on the brilliance of keeper Benaglio to take the duel to extra time.
Even then only ill fortune denied them a later than late equaliser. Blerim Dzemali headed against a post and the ball ricocheted out against his knee and fell back the wrong side of the same upright.
Argentina dominated possession but had few goal chances to show for it with Messi, in possession, always stifled in a cluster of red shirts.
Yet Switzerland created the most dangerous openings. First Granit Xhaka forced a sharp stop from keeper Sergio Romero who then blocked a long-range drive from Stephan Lichtsteiner.
Minutes later Shaqiri picked out Josip Drmic whose indecision produced a weak chip easily saved by relieved Romero.
As the match drove and the Swiss tired so Argentina coach Alejandro Seballe sought to pep up his attack with various substitutions but nothing worked . . . until Messi took advantage of a split-second’s fatigue and loss of concentration in the Swiss cover.
Di Maria, striding in from the right, swept a low angled shot left-footed beyond the diving Benaglio’ right hand.
Argentina suffered one last scare before gaining the relief of a place in the quarter-finals.
They celebrated briefly and left the pitch, and the crowd’s appreciation, for the Swiss.
Hitzfeld, 65-year-old German, will enter retirement after a 31-year managerial career comprising 19 major trophies with Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Grasshoppers wondering what might have been.