Angel di Maria, and then the width of the post, came to the aid of Argentina in the dying minutes of extra time to save them from the torture of penalties against Switzerland, and instead send them into the quarterfinals of the World Cup with a 1-0 victory in Sao Paulo.
With Argentina having been frustrated for over 117 minutes, the Round of 16 contest appeared to be heading inexorably for penalties. Instead, Lionel Messi found some previously all too rare space to drive at the Swiss defense before finding Di Maria, who, with composure defying the pressure of the moment, stroked the ball past the previously unbeatable Diego Benaglio in the Switzerland goal.
Argentina's nerves were settled. Or so they thought.
Incredibly, there was more late drama to contrast much of what had preceded it. With the chance to ensure penalties, substitute Blarim Dzemali somehow headed onto the post with the goal gaping from just a few yards out. Argentina survived, but it could not have been any closer.
Following in the footsteps of the other major contenders for this World Cup trophy, Argentina were a long way from convincing but somehow make it through the second round and onto the last eight. After a first half in which Switzerland created the better openings, Argentina dominated in the second.
But Ottmar Hitzfeld’s disciplined side were able to hold their opponents at bay, helped by Argentina’s final pass so often letting them down, and when it did find its target the recipient being unable to take the advantage. Messi, once again after four goals in the group stage, looked the man by far the likeliest to bring about the breakthrough in the second half, but was left frustrated both by his teammates, Switzerland’s compact defending and Benaglio.
Yet as he has already shown on more than one occasion in this World Cup, it takes just one moment for Messi to make the difference. He did so again, with the help of one of his few teammates to come close to providing him with the support required to take Argentina all the way in Brazil.
If they are to do so, they will surely have to end an incredible streak of underachievement on the World Cup stage that means, since they reached the final in 1990, Argentina have only beaten Mexico in the knockout rounds of the competition in regulation time. The early signs were not positive for that run ending in Sao Paulo.
It was a first half in which Argentina saw plenty of the ball but Switzerland carved out the only clear chances. Xherdan Shaqiri, drifting into dangerous positions, was certainly providing more of a threat than the man he has often be likened to, Messi. Good work down the right from the Bayern Munich man led to a pull-back from the byline that provided Granit Xhaka with a clear sight at goal from 12 yards out, but his shot was too close to Sergio Romero, who saved well with his legs.
With the Argentina defense crudely exposed not for the first time in this World Cup, Shaqiri then took a clever layoff from Josip Drmic and sent the striker clean through on goal. Romero could have come out to claim it but instead hesitated. Left stranded, he was mightily relieved when Drmic’s elaborate dink went straight into his grateful arms.
At the other end, Argentina were limited to half chances for Ezequiel Lavezzi and Di Maria, as Switzerland did a fine job of shackling Messi, chiefly through the hard-working midfield duo of Gökhan Inler and Valon Behrami. Indeed, Argentina’s clearest opening came from a free-kick that Ezequiel Garay was unable to meet in front of goal.
In contrast, the second half was almost all one-way traffic. Switzerland dropped increasingly deep, and their counter-attacking threat was rendered almost non-existent by their growing passivity. Argentina were still far from a fluid team going forward, but they still had the opportunities to avoid the need for extra time.
Gonzalo Higuain continued to fail to shine in Brazil when failing to find the net with two presentable headed chances. Then Messi began to find space and became the game’s dominant performer. Yet when he looked to go alone he was frustrated, first as a well-struck volley whistled just over the crossbar and then when the impressive Swiss goalkeeper Benaglio denied him low at his near post.
And when Messi’s brilliance set up his teammates, they fell a long way short of matching his quality. Rodrigo Palacio, on for Lavezzi, was the main culprit. After heading a delightfully clipped cross from Messi wide he then took a horribly heavy touch when through on goal after Messi had darted past two Swiss defenders and supplied a perfect probing pass into the box.
In sharp contrast to their shambolic defensive display in a 5-2 defeat to France in the group stage, this was a performance by Switzerland far more akin to their resilient 1-0 win over Spain in South four years ago. Gelson Fernandes, the man who scored the famous winner on that day, was introduced in the second half to aid the Swiss defensive effort. There was no goal from the midfielder this time, but he again played a part in holding a tournament favorite scoreless for 90 minutes.
Switzerland even regained some of their offensive thrust in the first half of extra time before the second period took on the look of two teams either without the willingness or ability to prevent the need for penalties. Di Maria was the one man still busting a gut to find a winner. He had three shots in the second period before Messi gave him the assist he had been waiting for. Argentina’s rocky defense should have been punished to send the match to penalties, regardless, but they live to fight another day against either Belgium or the United States in the quarterfinals.