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Jul 1, 2014

Argentina finally break down Swiss

Angel Di Maria's 117th-minute finish, after a fine run by Lionel Messi, was enough to put Argentina in the quarterfinal.

Here are three thoughts from Argentina's 1-0 win over Switzerland in extra time in the World Cup round of 16 Tuesday.

1. Messi lifts Argentina again

One moment of magic was what it took to finally break down Switzerland, but it remains to be seen whether it can transform Argentina into a champion. After what was by far their worst performance of the World Cup, and quite possibly the worst overall game of this tournament, questions have been raised about the South American side's ability to end up as the best team.

At the very least, they have by far the best player. Not for the first time, Lionel Messi did not do much, but did enough. Not for the first time, he left it very late, but still suggested that it might be his time. With Switzerland's dogged defence eventually tiring, Messi got away from the relentless two-man blockade for what felt like the first time. He provided one of those characteristic weaving runs before slipping the ball for Angel Di Maria to slide home. The stadium erupted.

It was a huge goal, but not just for the fact it puts Argentina into the quarterfinals and ensured they beat a team that wasn't Mexico in a World Cup knockout game for the first time since 1990. There was the identity of the scorer: Di Maria gave the ball away 51 times during the match and summed up so much of the disconnect in this team. But by the end, Messi again propped him and the team up.

The obvious question is how long that can go on, but there is no accounting for the psychological effect of a moment like that. The stadium was shaking, the team couldn't contain themselves. Belief may only grow, even if this team doesn't yet look like it will.

2. Argentina still struggling to jell

If Alejandro Sabella thought the win over Nigeria represented a "7 out of 10" and an improvement for Argentina, this was a regression to a 5 or worse.

While much of that might be because they repeatedly came up against a Switzerland 10-man blockade giving 100 percent effort, there were also deeper issues. Argentina remain badly disjointed and dysfunctional. It looks like it should all fit together, but it just doesn't. Sabella has used many different formations in his quest for perfection, but has so far got none of them right.

Here, it quickly became apparent that Argentina were not exactly flowing together. The tightness of the effective Swiss side -- who had 10 men behind the ball -- contrasted with the huge gaps between areas of the Argentine formation. This was especially true in central midfield, which gradually became controlled by Gokhan Inler.

In so many cases, there was no immediately obvious option for Argentina to work the ball into, meaning an array of crosses were aimlessly slung into the box. It's difficult to tell whether that was down to players who were off form, or a game plan that just didn't suit them, but the net effect was all too clear: an Argentina team that did not play like champions.

Angel Di Maria slotted home to give Argentina the win.

3. Swiss almost pull off the perfect defensive performance

Swiss coach Ottmar Hitzfeld said the 5-2 loss to France in Group E had maybe "woken" his team up, and they were certainly sharp to almost everything Argentina did here. It was close to a perfect defensive display, reminiscent of their 1-0 win over Spain at the start of the 2010 World Cup.

Once again, they completely minimised a fine attack's main strengths by doing the math on what needed the most work. Every time Argentina started an attack, they had 10 men in front of them; every time that attack was funneled through to Messi, he turned into at least two players. From there, the rest of the attackers had more space, but the way in which the Swiss moved ensured they couldn't make the best of it.

The intensity of the defending from Hitzfeld's side only accentuated the amount of poor choices that Argentina's forwards were making. Some of the exchanges between Di Maria and Swiss left-back Ricardo Rodriguez made this clear. On one occasion in the second half, the ball eventually broke to the Real Madrid winger on the far corner of the box. Just when it seemed like he had enough space to produce, Rodriguez immediately pounced to pummel the ball away. Moments later, Di Maria finally got the better of the Wolfsburg defender, but played a dreadful ball in while trying a trick that only comes off once every blue moon.

It came so close to being enough for Switzerland, but it wasn't. There was one man they still couldn't completely pin down, still couldn't legislate for. Messi was given a chance to run at the defence, Fabian Schar couldn't stop him and the ball was inch-perfect for Di Maria to slot home. Finally, the winger found the right option to send the brave Swiss home.

Miguel Delaney

Miguel Delaney is London correspondent for ESPN and also writes for the Irish Examiner, the Independent, Blizzard and assorted others. He is the author of an award-nominated book on the Irish national team called 'Stuttgart to Saipan' (Mentor) and was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year in 2011.