Messi again writes script as Argentina scrape home

Argentina 1 Switzerland 0 (aet)
The Argentinian fans on the metro heading out to the Arena de Sao Paulo were giving full vent to their repertoire of battle hymns of which probably the most basic and unadorned ditty — and one they repeatedly return to — is a chant that goes as follows: "Oh, oh, oh, oh, Maradona-Mexico, Maradona-Mexico".

Some of their songs — like their curious adaptation of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’ — might confound the uninitiated but the Maradona-Mexico chant, well, that requires no translation.

More than just a celebration of the greatest solo show on earth — Diego’s extraordinary colonisation of the World Cup of 1986 — the chant also implies a hope and even a demand: that what the master did all of 28 years ago, the heir apparent can and will do at Brazil 2014.

In short, we’re talking Lionel Messi again, as how can we not be when, having gone into yesterday’s knock-out game as the man responsible for four of Argentina’s six goals thus far, he once again rescued his team when their backs were against the wall —and comprehensively broke Swiss hearts in the process — by brilliantly laying on Angel Di Maria’s immaculate late, late winner when penalties were looming in Sao Paulo.

There were said to be 100,000 Argentines in sunny ‘Sampa’ yesterday and, at the start — and then again at the finish — it certainly felt like that inside the big open box of Corinthians’ new home.

For all the response they were able to muster in the face of Argentinian vocal passion, the Swiss supporters — dotted around the stands like tiny droplets of blood against a backdrop of blue and white and yellow — might as well have been neutrals.

But, not surprisingly, the Brazilians, also present in large numbers, were happy to adopt them as their team of the day, ABA — anyone but Argentina — being the default setting in these parts.

In the early exchanges, Messi was patrolling the scene in his usual unhurried way, strolling from one flank to the other, then quietly popping up in the pocket, all the while looking over his shoulder, searching out space and, with an impatient wave of the arm, directing his team’s traffic.

His first attempted bit of skill saw him unceremoniously barged over and then, when an overhit through ball for Angel Di Maria just ran out of play, the Sao Paulo natives seized on his embarrassment to bait him with a cacophony of jeers.

But, as ever, Messi would have the last laugh — even if he would have to wait until almost the bitter end.

Before kick-off, Argentina had enjoyed an average possession figure of 65% in the group phase — the highest in the tournament — and they continued in the same vein here in the first half.

Yet, with Ezequiel Lavezzi virtually anonymous as a replacement for the injured Sergio Aguero, they had virtually nothing to show for it in front of goal; instead it was their ‘keeper Sergio Romero who was the one having to make a double save to thwart a rare Swiss attack approaching the half-hour mark.

And, in the 37th minute, Switzerland had another great opportunity to cause a shock but, this time, striker Josip Drmic, with the time and space to lob Romero after being put through by Xherdan Shaqiri failed miserably to get the required elevation on the ball.

The supposed underdogs were definitely having the better of the few chances on offer but, overall, the game was a deadly dull affair.

With Messi being repeatedly crowded out, not always legally, and more Argentinian possession coming to nought early in the second half, Switzerland — although fielding the bulk of the pressure — actually looked the more composed side.

But as the half wore on, Argentina began to gain the ascendancy, a discernible quickening of the tempo of their play accompanying the lengthening shadows and the welcome intervention of a cooling breeze.

Amazingly, their first serious effort on goal still didn’t arrive until as late as the 63rd minute, Swiss ‘keeper Benaglio tipping over a Gonzalo Higuain header from a superb Marco Rojo cross.

Minutes later Messi himself chested the ball down and hit a dipping volley just over the top.

With the ineffective Lavezzi replaced by Rodrigo Palacio, the Argentinian pressure increased, Benaglio now doing well to save one-handed as Messi fired low through a forest of legs.

A tiring Switzerland were struggling to get out of their own half by this stage and a brilliant run by Messi, from the touchline into the box, almost opened them up right at the end of 90 minutes but they survived to force extra time — 30 minutes which would prove largely uneventful until the astonishing climax.

Despite the continued best efforts of Messi and a re-energised Di Maria, it had looked like Argentina simply weren’t going to be able to breach the red wall until, with just two minutes of additional time left on the clock, the team’s two best players combined to do just that, Messi receiving the ball in space, hurdling a challenge, accelerating towards the box and then, without breaking stride, laying off the perfect diagonal pass for Di Maria to provide what had been missing all game for Argentina — the clinical touch — with a sweeping first-time finish.

Even then there was still time for one final remarkable let-off for Argentina as Swiss substitute Dzemaili’s header from point-blank range came back off the post, hit his knee, and rebounded wide.

ARGENTINA (4-3-1-2): Romero; Zabaleta, F. Fernandez, Garay, Rojo (Basanta 105); Gago (Biglia 106), Mascherano, Di Maria; Messi; Lavezzi (Palacio 73), Higuain

SWITZERLAND (4-2-3-1): Benaglio; Lichtsteiner, Djourou, Schaer, Rodgriguez; Behrami, Inler; Shaqiri, Xhaka (Fernandes 65), Mehmedi (Dzemaili 112); Drmic (Seferovic 81)

Referee: Jonas Eriksson (Sweden)


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