Sao Paulo: They tried to keep Lionel Messi quiet for two hours, but class will come out. Messi is the greatest footballer of his generation because he cannot be subdued for long.
Full of heart, Argentina’s No. 10 kept running at the Swiss, kept looking for a way through a defence that resembled a forbidding mountain range at times. As penalties seemed inevitable, Messi found a way through, creating the goal that carried Argentina through to the quarter finals of the World Cup.
As the clock showed 120 minutes, Messi ran at the Switzerland defence, skipping round Fabian Schaer, stroking the ball across to Angel di Maria, who sent the ball low and hard into the net, sending the reserves spilling on to the pitch, and sending the Argentina fans into raptures, waving their shirts above their head. One waved something else at the press box. There were grown men, stripped to the waist, crying with joy. Messi had kept their World Cup dream alive.
Messi needs this trophy; it was clear in his every move, his every attempt to escape his many markers, and spirit the ball into the Swiss area and net. The Swiss could frustrate such a talent for only so long. In front of the watching Pele, Messi knows that he needs a fine World Cup to stand on the pantheon of the greats with Pele and Diego Maradona. Messi has achieved so much with Barcelona. He has won Champions Leagues and Ballons d’Or. He has to do it with Argentina.
From the kick-off, Messi took the ball from the ineffective Gonzalo Higuain and tried to launch a move. Almost immediately, Ottmar Hitzfeld’s tactics were apparent, Swiss swarming around Messi. The veteran coach had promised a well-prepared reception committee and he was true to his word. Within seconds Messi was being closed down by Admir Mehmedi. It set the theme of the half: Messi taking the ball and the Swiss crowding him out, sending him down cul de sacs.
Argentina were set up to bring the best out of him, trying to stretch Switzerland and expand the pockets of space that Messi loves to work in but they lacked an intelligent ball-user, a Juan Sebastian Veron, lying deeper, varying play.
Missing the injured Sergio Aguero, Alejandro Sabella started Ezequiel Lavezzi on the right with Di Maria left, although they occasionally switched. Di Maria was the more influential, flicking the ball round Stephane Lichtsteiner early on but being baulked. The Swiss guards were out in force against the Pope’s compatriots.
Switzerland’s game-plan stayed within the bounds of legitimacy for most part. They hustled and harried, disrupting Argentina’s moves, slowing their tempo. They looked to hit on the break.
Argentina were very aware of Switzerland’s danger-man, Xherdan Shaqiri, who quickly became a favourite of the watching Brazilians with some of his trickery against Argentina. They booed when Fernando Gago slid in on him. They cheered when Shaqiri created a good opportunity on the left, ending with Gokhan Inler shooting over as a lone Swiss cow-bell tolled plaintively.
Still Messi attempted to shake off his suffocating markers. He eluded Valon Behrami, then had a low effort picked off by Diego Benaglio. Messi was mainly central but occasionally drifting wide, appearing briefly on the right and slaloming between Behrami and Ricardo Rodriguez. It was a wonderful movement, all quick feet and balance. Rodriguez was thrown off-balance, falling into Messi, clearly impeding him but Jonas Eriksson waved play on.
Messi briefly complained to the Swedish referee of Swiss tactics before taking them on again, turning away from Behrami, and then Fabian Schaer but again the window of opportunity was nailed shut. Johan Djourou resembled the Eiger, a giant rock in Argentina’s path.
Argentina’s own defence, a much-scrutinised unit, was grateful to their oft-criticised keeper Sergio Romero. Monaco’s occasional goalie showed great reflexes to save sudden strikes from Granit Xhaka and then Lichtsteiner. Romero also punched out a Shaqiri free-kick following another wriggling run which delighted the Brazilians.
Argentina’s keeper was the busier before the break. His team were too slow in closing down Shaqiri who angled a long ball over the dishevelled ranks of Argentina’s defence. It was a golden opportunity for Josip Drmic, running into space down the inside-left channel. He tried to be too clever, tried to dink Romero, who calmly stood his ground and caught the under hit ball. The Brazilians were furious, gesticulating at Drmic for failing to score against their great rivals.
The Swiss continued to thwart Messi in particular. After being body-checked by Schaer, Messi bent in a free-kick that Djourou cleared. The pressure seemed to be building. From a Marcos Rojo cross, Higuain had a powerful close-range pushed over by Benaglio. Argentina just could not apply the finish. Higuain headed wide. Messi sent a volley just over.
Messi needed help. Higuain was so poor, so ineffective. Messi was trying to solve the puzzle on his own. The Swiss continued to frustrate him. Behrami fouled Messi, who pushed his antagonist. Messi then dribbled in from the left, managing to escape Behrami and Fernandes, but again there was no way through for Argentina.
Thoughts inevitably turned to the unfortunate timing of Aguero’s injury and the decision to leave Carlos Tevez at home where he was pictured winning a goal competition. But then came Messi.
Argentina still had to keep out a Shaqiri free-kick, following Garay’s foul on Switzerland’s No 23, but it was that No. 10, the magnificent Messi, who deserved to go through.
Argentina: Sergio Romero; Ezequiel Garay, Pablo Zabaleta, Marcos Rojo (Jose Basanta, 106), Federico Fernandez; Fernando Gago (Lucas Biglia, 106), Angel di Maria, Javier Mascherano; Ezequiel Lavezzi (Rodrigo Palacio, 74), Gonzalo Higuain, Lionel Messi
Switzerland: Diego Benaglio; Stephan Lichtsteiner, Ricardo Rodriguez, Johan Djourou, Fabian Schaer; Gokhan Inler, Granit Xhaka (Gelson Fernandes, 66), Xherdan Shaqiri, Valon Behrami; Admir Mehmedi (Blerim Dzemaili, 113), Josip Drmic (Haris Seferovic, 82)
Man of the Match: Lionel Messi
Referee: Jonas Eriksson (Sweden)