Sao Paulo: Switzerland kept Lionel Messi quiet for 117 minutes, about three minutes fewer than they needed to.
Messi, who scored four goals in three group games at World Cup 2014, broke through the heart of the Swiss midfield late in extra time in their last-16 game, drawing three opponents before getting the ball to Angel di Maria for the goal that gave Argentina a 1-0 victory on Tuesday in Sao Paulo.
“Messi in one second can decide a match," Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld said in a news conference after his last game as a coach. “He has sufficient qualities for that."
After not scoring in his first two World Cups, Messi—the only person to be voted the world’s best football player four times—has dragged a sluggish Argentina into the quarterfinals of World Cup 2014 on neighbour Brazil’s home turf.
Argentina, which won its second world title in 1986, will play Belgium in Brasilia on 5 July for a place in the semifinals. Belgium defeated the US 2-1 after extra time in the last round-of-16 game.
Messi scored the decisive goal in group-phase wins against Bosnia and Iran, and got two goals in a 3-2 defeat of Nigeria.
Switzerland followed its plan, crowding Messi every time he took possession and limiting the space for him to run into. The tactic worked, frustrating Messi, who shoved Valon Behrami to the ground with 10 of the regulation 90 minutes to play.
“At times I was nervous because we couldn’t score," Messi said after collecting his fourth straight man-of-the-match award. “Any mistakes and we could’ve been eliminated."
Brazilian locals, backing the Swiss, reminded the sky-blue- and-white-shirted fans in the crowd that their national icon Pele has three World Cup wins, one more than Argentina. Another taunt recounted Brazil’s record five titles.
With two more wins each, Brazil and Argentina will meet in the 13 July final at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium. Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella said he wasn’t thinking about the possibility.
“Our dream is to work for the next match and to try to move to the semifinals," he said.
The goal against Switzerland was reminiscent of the one that knocked Brazil out of the tournament 24 years ago, the last time Argentina played its neighbour in the World Cup.
Argentina’s star player Diego Maradona had been subdued for most of the second-round game before producing the defining moment. With time ticking down, Maradona, captain of the World Cup-winning team of 1986, ran through the heart of midfield, drawing in opponents before playing in striker Claudio Caniggia, who scored the winning goal.
“We will never forget that Diego ran through you, that Caniggia scored against you," Argentina fans sang after the goal against Switzerland. “You’ve been crying since then and now you will see Messi, he’s going to bring us the cup."
Even after the late goal, the Swiss almost took the game to a penalty shootout. Blerim Dzemaili slammed a header onto the post and stood helplessly as the ball ricocheted off his shin and rolled just wide.
“We were suffering," said Messi. “We had luck on our side and we have to move on." Bloomberg
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