SAO PAULO – Don’t cry for Argentina; save the tears for the Swiss.
Angel di Maria scored two minutes from the end of extra-time to send Argentina into the World Cup quarter-finals following a 1-0 win over Switzerland in Sao Paulo today.
Di Maria’s erratic performance had been symptomatic of Argentina’s, but he produced the decisive moment of a largely disappointing game to set up a last-eight encounter with Belgium.
Switzerland created the best chances of a first half which failed to match the entertainment that has generally been on offer at the World Cup so far.
Granit Xhaka forced a smart low save out of Sergio Romero on 28 minutes following good work by Xherdan Shaqiri before Josip Drmic tamely chipped the ball straight at the Argentinian keeper after he had been sent clean through.
Argentina displayed greater impetus after half-time but, with Lionel Messi largely subdued, the two-time World Cup winners struggled to fashion clear chances.
Diego Benaglio saved well from Marcos Rojo and Gonzalo Higuain, before the Switzerland keeper was equal to Messi’s low shot and was then up quickly to deny substitute Rodrigo Palacio on the follow-up.
Di Maria brought a flying save out of Benaglio early in the second period of extra-time before the Real Madrid attacker sent Argentina into the last eight with two minutes to go by rolling a low shot beyond the Swiss keeper following a burst of pace from Messi.
Switzerland were agonisingly close to equalising in added time when the unmarked Blerim Dzemaili’s header from inside the six-yard box came back off the post and the rebound deflected wide off the substitute.
Alejandro Sabella looked a worried man on the touchline as his Argentina team failed to break through an organised Swiss defence in the early stages of the first-half as their opponents looked far more dangerous on the attack.
Romero dived to his right to deny Xhaka with his feet and the Argentina goalkeeper saved the follow-up from Stephan Lichtsteiner.
Argentina offered only weak threats at the other end as Ezequiel Lavezzi, starting ahead of the injured Sergio Aguero, shot straight at Benaglio. Switzerland had to resort to some bully-boy tactics to tame the Argentinians at times, though.
A few late tackles flew in and referee Jonas Eriksson ran out of patience, booking Xhaka for tripping Lavezzi.
Then came the best chance of the first half on 39 minutes. Drmic raced through on goal after the ball broke to him in space, but much to Ottmar Hitzfeld’s dismay, the striker attempted a chip which landed straight into Romero’s arms.
Romero frayed Argentinian nerves just after the break when he juggled Shaqiri’s free-kick on the line, but he collected the ball at the third attempt.
Argentina dominated the rest of the second half, but Benaglio would not be beaten. Rojo stung Benaglio’s palms with a fierce shot and the Swiss stopper then stretched to tip over Higuain’s header before Messi hit a spectacular left-foot volley that flew inches over the bar.
Switzerland coach Hitzfeld brought Gelson Fernandes on and within ten minutes he had received a booking for hacking down Di Maria.
Sabella also made a change, bringing Palacio on for Lavezzi. The Inter Milan striker missed a glorious chance with his first touch – a free header that flew wide from Messi’s cross.
With 13 minutes left Benaglio showed immense bravery to push the ball away from Palacio’s feet as he followed up Messi’s shot from the edge of the area.
Benaglio had to be alert for the final ten minutes of the 90 as Argentina launched attack after attack, and he remained the busiest man on the pitch in extra-time, saving in quick succession from Pablo Zabaleta and Higuain.
At the start of the second period Benaglio again saved superbly from Di Maria’s fierce shot from just outside the area.
A penalty shoot-out seemed inevitable, but Di Maria finally beat Benaglio with two minutes left. Palacio won the ball on the halfway line and laid the ball to Messi, who played in Di Maria and he curled his shot into the net.
Wild celebrations ensued, but Switzerland piled forward and they would have equalised a minute later had Dzemaili not hit a post and missed the rebound from two yards.