Lionel Messi saves best for last to devastate brave Swiss
Argentina 1 Switzerland 0 (After extra-time)
Published 02/07/2014 | 02:30
Still the tournament waits for someone to seize it and play with a style and sense of entitlement which befits this great land of football.
Switzerland are not the world's sixth best nation – despite what the rankings say. Only 12 days have passed since they were ground into the Salvador turf, destroyed 5-2 by a France side who might have scored more. The delirious Brazilian chants of "ole" which rang out in extra-time here were an ironic commentary on an old enemy's failure to find any way through. Yet for more than 117 minutes yesterday, their precise organisation was beyond Argentina.
When the game had reached the halfway point of extra-time, some Argentina players had their head in hands. That was before Lionel Messi – their only force – forged into the penalty area one last time and found Angel di Maria, who scored, left-footed. Even then, in the last minute of extra-time, Switzerland substitute Blerim Dzemaili missed the chance of a lifetime.
The frailties of the tournament's greats is creating a second round riddled with drama, and we are all the beneficiaries. But there will be agonies in Buenos Aires. There was a time when they could rely on one man – Diego Maradona – to elevate them to higher ground alone. Messi needs others to interact with. They were not there yesterday. Di Maria, usually the other main architect, could not seize and retain the ball. He conceded possession 51 times.
There was some questionable self-justification from coach Alejandro Sabella last night. "I usually criticise myself sometimes before you but today the team played a wonderful match," he said. "We were clearly superior in the second half. We played a wonderful match against a very hard team."
The pockets of Swiss support were so minute and the Argentinians so overwhelming, with their loud, ubiquitous song about bossing Brazilians around in their own back yard, that this felt like a pre-ordained script. Switzerland had never beaten their opponents and it did not look like a particularly auspicious time to start up some unilateral act of aggression. But the prevailing narrative of this World Cup is about the troubles of the elite and we saw Argentina searching for something more meaningful than "give it to Messi".
They were disconnected, like a school team with one good player, not terribly minded to try much without him, and even his own flourishes were intermittent for a time. A drop of the shoulder to snake between Ricardo Rodriguez and Gokhan Inler, which Rodriguez put a stop to. Pace and power are not a part of the Messi game. He was deployed on the right-hand side of a midfield line of four, though he flitted along the front line, often on the ball, looking for a space to track into or for someone else to find.
The Swiss were not ambitious. "If we had attacked we would have conceded even more goals than against France," reflected their German coach Ottmar Hitzfeld. But they had confidence. They look like a one-star school team too – he is Xherdan Shaqiri – and if they had only been blessed with the ability to finish what they started then what a story this could have been. The man touched on the shoulder by history was Josip Drmic, sent hurtling free into the left of the penalty area by Shaqiri on 38 minutes. With the Argentinian defenders about to join him it had to be a first-time finish but his lob reached Sergio Romero, the goalkeeper, at waist height. "This is football. These emotions you only have in football. That's why we love it," Hitzfeld said at the end.
The Swiss owed something to Hitzfeld, who confirmed last night that this match brings the curtain down on six years in charge. The timing of his 82-year-old brother Winfried's death, on the eve of the game, was desperate. "It's hard for us to talk about football today," his press secretary said.
The prospect of them delivering something dropped with the afternoon sun, though as the shadows lengthened Argentina still laboured to find any way around a resolute wall of red. They had 61pc possession but lacked a finishing touch.
There were chances for the lesser mortals, with two of Gonzalo Higuain's arriving around the hour mark: a shot touched over by Diego Benaglio and a header planted straight at him. But by the end of normal time, it was a question of which route Messi might take to fashion something. He brought down a ball that he volleyed an inch over the bar. He surged into the left-hand side of the box and fired a shot through a defender's legs that Benaglio saved, low down and unconvincingly. He beat two players on the left, raced past a third in the box and, as the stadium held its breath, sought an outlet amid the thin red line which ushered the ball away.
Extra-time brought more stabs in the dark. A Di Maria shot from the right was touched over, which was a rare incursion from the winger. But even when Di Maria had broken through, the Swiss spurned an extraordinary last-minute chance. Dzemaili headed a corner against the post and the rebound stuck his knee and squirmed wide.
"That was everything that can happen in the life of the coach," Hitzfeld reflected. "It was an incredible reaction." The Argentina fans celebrated with delirium after beating the most modest of football nations. (© Independent News Service)