Lionel Messi has thus far provided a most convincing response to heavy pressure for a memorable performance on the World Cup stage. Now he will surely be hoping that a few more of his teammates can do likewise. In his third World Cup, Messi has for the first time matched the extraordinary heights he has reached regularly with Barcelona that made him a four-time World Player of the Year. With four of Argentina’s six goals in the group stage, he has emphatically carried his country’s hopes for a first World Cup since the Diego-Maradona-inspired triumph in 1986.
But with Argentina beginning the knockout phase with a Round of 16 meeting with Switzerland on Tuesday, he could now do with a little more support. Argentina’s opening 2-1 win against Bosnia-Herzegovina got better following a half-time switch back to a more familiar 4-3-3 formation, but against Iran it took an injury-time Messi wonder goal to beat the stubborn and disciplined underdogs. There were encouraging signs in a 3-2 win over Nigeria, although the increasing lack of intensity after it became clear that Nigeria would be joining Argentina in the next round, regardless of the result, took the edge off the affair.
While Messi has shined, the defense, and even one of its stronger parts -- Pablo Zabaleta -- has expectedly looked vulnerable. Meanwhile, an attack that delivered 35 goals in 16 qualifying games has yet to find its balance and hit top gear. There will be an enforced chance to Argentina’s attacking lineup in Sao Paulo on Tuesday, with Sergio Aguero ruled out with a thigh injury that may at least not keep him out for the rest of the tournament as was initially feared. Aguero’s absence will more than likely mean a first start of the World Cup for Ezequiel Lavezzi. It may not turn out to be a bad thing for Alejandro Sabella’s side.
Aguero is at his best one of the finest strikers on the planet, yet he has not looked sharp thus far in Brazil. What Aguero also does, along with Gonzalo Higuain and Messi, is to make Argentina’s front line very narrow and condensed. Lavezzi, though not with nearly the same technical talent as Aguero, is more natural going out wide and can stretch the play, potentially opening up more space for Messi. When Lavezzi came on against Nigeria, Argentina almost went to a 4-4-2 for a time; he gives them that option.
While Argentina will be looking for more Messi heroics, their opponents will be hoping that the man dubbed the “Alpine Messi” can inspire a famous upset. Xherdan Shaqiri is already in his second World Cup at the age of just 22, and last Wednesday made a big statement of his long-known talent with a hat-trick in the 3-0 dismissal of Switzerland. It was the first match in which the Bayern Munich man was handed a central role behind a strike from the start and he flourished.
With other exciting young players like Granit Xhaka and Josip Drmic also making positive impressions thus far, Ottmar Hitzfeld’s side certainly have plenty going for them in attack. The problem has been at the back. A shambolic 5-2 defeat to France in which they trailed 5-0 until late was a chastening experience for an inexperienced team with high expectations.
Hitzfeld, a legendary Champions League winning coach with both Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, will step down after the World Cup. He would certainly prefer to do so after leading Switzerland to a first ever win against Argentina and a first appearance in a World Cup quarterfinal since they hosted the tournament 60 years ago, rather than a Messi-inspired hiding.
In a central role, Shaqiri combined superbly with Drmic against Honduras and the pair can certainly be a thorn in the side of a flakey Argentina defense. Switzerland also have quality coming forward from their two full-backs that can do damage. But the attacking intent of Ricardo Rodriguez and, especially, Stephan Lichtsteiner, could also be their downfall. France repeatedly got in behind Lichtsteiner in their rout and Argentina, through Angel di Maria, could well look to do likewise. Fabian Schär’s inclusion at center-back should give Switzerland more resistance, but it is unlikely to be enough to keep Messi and Co. at bay in an open game that Argentina should relish.
Argentina 3-1 Switzerland
Betting odds (Bovada.lv)
In 90 minutes:
Argentina win: 5/11
Switzerland win: 6/1
When and where: The 2014 World Cup Round of 16 match will kick off from the Arena de Sao Paulo at noon ET.