Argentina can thank their lucky stars for late winner
It is astonishing how Sabella is making a squad full of talent look so ordinary
ROUND OF 16
(Angel di Maria 118)
- After extra time. Full-time 0-0.
First Brazil, then Germany and now Argentina. The favourites for the World Cup are in no hurry to impress anyone.
It took Argentina 118 minutes to break down Ottmar Hitzfeld's Switzerland, a slow and draining carnival of ineptitude that seemed destined to end with a penalty shootout.
Thanks to a late burst from an exhausted Lionel Messi, who set up Angel di Maria for the winner, Argentina were spared that indignity.
It is quite astonishing that Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella is making a squad full of exceptional talent look so ordinary.
An encouraging 3-2 victory over Nigeria in the final group game suggested that his team might be finally finding their feet. This match was irrefutable evidence that they are not.
The South Americans' only strategies appeared to be to either give the ball to Messi or to fire in a cross for Messi.
Messi is just 1.69 metres. A total of 53 balls were delivered from the flanks. Only 10 of them reached their destination. There was something of David Moyes about this performance.
Argentina have really struggled to find their groove at this World Cup, always doing just enough to overcome their opponents and it was hardly surprising that the pattern continued in Sao Paulo this morning (Singapore time).
Sabella was forced into one change, putting Ezequiel Lavezzi in for the injured Sergio Aguero.
His opposite number, veteran Hitzfeld, opted to stick with the same team that had crushed Honduras 3-0 in the last game of the group stage.
Sadly, Hitzfeld had other matters on his mind, the death of his older brother on Monday night.
The Swiss had suspected that the local supporters would encourage them and they were right.
The loudest cheer of the first half came after 20 minutes when Gokhan Inler dispossessed Messi.
You would have been forgiven for thinking that a goal had been scored.
That support continued all the way into the final stages, with Hitzfeld's side roared on throughout.
Switzerland had a plan, a very simple one. They kept their fullbacks tightly leashed, they held their lines deep and they had a line of five midfielders in front of the defence.
Hitzfeld was happy to allow Argentina to run at his players, confident there was little room for them to manoeuvre.
Sabella's team struggled to make chances. In the centre, Valon Behrami and Gokhan Inler were outstanding.
Switzerland made chances, too.
They could have taken the lead on 28 minutes when a short corner led to Xherdan Shaqiri's neat cut-back for Granit Xhaka.
The Borussia Moenchengladbach midfielder kept his head down and drove a firm shot at goal, but Sergio Romero blocked it with his legs.
There was no excuse for their failure to score in the 39th minute.
A through-ball from Shaqiri should have been met by Romero but, unlike Manuel Neuer, who couldn't wait to leave his line yesterday morning when Germany were hassled by Algeria, the Argentina goalkeeper stayed on his line.
Josep Drmic was able to close the gap, pick up the ball and take his time over the finish.
Unfortunately, instead of taking an extra touch and driving in a powerful shot, he opted to go for the lob, undercooked it dramatically and simply passed it back to Romero.
It was a desperately poor finish and Romero was very fortunate that his hesitation didn't prove costly.
Argentina started the second half in better mood. Lavezzi's pull-back for Gonzalo Higuain was only just cut out by the Swiss.
They could have been playing with 10 men just a couple of minutes later when Xhaka, booked in the first half, clattered into Messi.
Referee Jonas Erikson was merciful. Still Argentina intensified the pressure, finally utilising all of the pitch in their efforts to open up the Swiss.
Marcos Rojo's cross on the hour allowed Higuain to power in a header, but Diego Benaglio was able to tip it over the bar.
Messi released Pablo Zabaleta who found Gonzalo Higuain with a cross, but the ball flashed wide.
Messi smashed one over the bar. The Swiss were in trouble.
With 13 minutes to go, Messi made his own room and then fired in low, only to be blocked by Benaglio.
But still, the breakthrough wouldn't come and, when extra time arrived, the game had already wound down into a lethargic shoving match.
Angel di Maria, so impressive for Real Madrid this season, had a wretched game, giving the ball away an astonishing 51 times during the match.
Yet it was he who made the breakthrough.
Messi, who was on his haunches at the break in extra time, visibly drained by his efforts, made the run through the centre and his ball found di Maria cutting in from the right.
The Real star didn't even bother to take a touch, he just lashed the ball into the bottom corner.
Argentina survive, but they will have to play far, far better than this if their hopes of glory are to be realised.