"How to stop Messi? We'll show you tomorrow how we do it," Switzerland's veteran coach Ottmar Hitzefeld had said with a gleam in his eye on the eve of this second round clash in Sao Paulo. The problem is, you don't stop Messi. Eventually he will find a way.
After a relatively subdued game in which Switzerland's defensive plan had worked exceptionally well for 118 minutes, it was Messi who broke free, charged into space down the right and laid a perfect pass off for Angel di Maria to score the winning goal, breaking Swiss hearts just minutes before what would have been a well-deserved penalty shootout.
Considering all the pre-match talk was about the Argentine maestro and how Switzerland would halt his quest to emulate Diego Maradona and carry a team lacking sparkle to world glory, we saw very little of him early on at the Arena de Sao Paulo.
Messi's first real involvement in this game came in the 12th minute. Switzerland set their side up to defend resolutely in numbers, but an early warning sign came when the Argentine Golden Boot contender broke free of Swiss midfield minders Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami and put in a dangerous low cross that keeper Diego Benaglio had to be alert to claim. A teaser, but nothing to worry about just yet for Hitzfeld's side.
Alejandro Sabella’s men enjoyed 74% possession in the opening exchanges, seeing much more of the Brazuca and looking to probe a well-organised Swiss side. This was a trend that would continue for large swathes of a tense, often slow game.
Much of Argentina’s focus came down the left with Di Maria most prominent, drawing early fouls and looking to penetrate down Stephan Lichtsteiner’s flank. Watter bottle squirter Ezequiel Lavezzi had been drafted into the starting line-up to replace wounded striker Sergio Aguero, but both Lavezzi and Gonzalo Higuain – who has laboured his way through this tournament – offered little early on.
Switzerland rarely got men forward in numbers, but when they did they unbalanced Argentina’s defence with alarming regularity. In the 27th minute Granit Xhaka came closest to scoring. After a crafty little corner routine, Xhaka received a cutback on the edge of the box in acres of space. Sergio Romero’s save was outstanding and he did well to block the second attempt from Lichtsteiner too. Xherdan Shaqiri, fresh off the back of his hat-trick against Honduras, always looked like Switzerland's most dangerous weapon and he was the opening half hour’s most creative player.
In the 38th minute, striker Josip Drmic missed a big chance on the counter-attack. A simple ball forward bypassed Argentina's entire midfield after an attack down the left broke down and left them open.
Drmic found himself with space to run into. Unlike Manuel Neuer the night before, Romero was hesitant – totally unsure whether to charge off his line or not and in the end doing neither, standing yards off his line like a rabbit caught in headlights. Fortunately for him, and the hordes of Argentine fans in the crowd, Drmic’s attempted lob was appalling.
The move had been started by Fabian Schar and defensively Hitzfeld’s side were strong; Ricardo Rodriguez a useful outlet down the left in transitions
At half-time there was the sense that though Argentina were the more masterful team, Switzerland were executing the smarter game plan. In terms of chances created it was nearly even, a clear sign of Switzerland's counter-attacking potency given Argentina's superior possession.
Despite the early warning sign, Messi wasn’t getting too much help from his team-mates, and did little to influence things in the first half.
In attack for Switzerland, Drmic had linked up with Shaqiri well and found himself in good positions, but his finishing was wasteful.
In the second half the game gradually began to open up as Switzerland’s defensive intensity dropped – marginally, but enough to make a difference. Argentina started to rack up passes in the final third...
...but Messi’s supporting cast were not having impressive games. Lavezzi and Higuain had off-days – another one for the latter, who's had a poor tournament in general.
Di Maria too was toiling fruitlessly, but at least seeing the ball and trying to make things happen, however unsuccessfully. In midfield Behrami and Inler had closed off the space where Messi thrives most – cutting onto his left foot in central areas. Hitzfeld has won several major honours in an illustrious managerial career. The tactics came straight from his playbook and were working perfectly.
A mostly drab game ended 0-0. Extra-time came. The first half passed without incident - Messi looked exhausted while the pockets of Brazilian supporters scattered around the ground sang ‘Ole’ with every pass completed by the Swiss, their new, temporary favourite team. Shaqiri in particular thrived on the attention and sparked into life.
It looked for all the world like we were heading to penalties. Both teams seemed out of ideas, slow and ready to play the lottery.
But there was late drama, created by that man Messi. Eventually, Di Maria got his goal – his first of a relatively mediocre tournament, given how central he was in Real Madrid's Champions League-winning season. Di Maria had been a prominent figure, mainly noted for his wasteful play in key areas but always a willing runner ready to try things. After 11 shots the Real Madrid star finally scored.
Switzerland sparked into life after this and, desperate for an equaliser, forged chances. Substitute Blerim Dzemaili agonisingly hit the post. This made you wonder why the Swiss hadn't perhaps shown more attacking intent when level at 0-0 – Argentina's defence, after all, is not without its flaws.
It was too little too late though. Di Maria alone had tried almost as many shots on goal as the entire Swiss team. As it proved, he was the match-winner.
Facts and figures
- Argentina have have been on the winning side in 6 of their 7 World Cup games that have gone to extra-time.
- Di Maria’s goal was the latest ever scored by Argentina at the World Cup (118 minutes).
- 4 of the 7 last 16 games so far at this World Cup have gone to extra time, something that last happened in 1990.
- Xherdan Shaqiri created 6 chances in this match, more than any Swiss player has managed at the tournament so far in a game.
- Di Maria attempted 12 shots (including blocked) v Switzerland, the most ever in a single WC match by an Argentinian (1966-2014).
- No Argentinian player (1966-2014) has ever recorded more crosses (including corners) in a World Cup match than Di Maria in this game (19).
- Switzerland committed 28 fouls in this match, a record for them at the World Cup (1966-2014).
- The last shot on target in this match from Switzerland came in the 50th minute.
- Argentina are unbeaten in all 7 of their international meetings with Switzerland (W5 D2).
- Argentina have progressed through their last 4 World Cup second round ties; winning on penalties versus England in 1998 and beating Mexico in both 2006 and 2010 before this game.
- Argentina have been knocked out only once in their 7 previous appearances at this stage (versus Romania in 1994).
- Switzerland have been knocked out in the second round in their last 3 appearances at this stage (versus Spain in 1994 and versus Ukraine in 2006 before today).
- Switzerland have failed to score in their last 3 World Cup knockout matches, last scoring in one in 1954.