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Jul 1, 2014

Messi continues to lift supporting cast

Argentina can breathe again, although the sound of pounding hearts can still be heard from Sao Paulo to Buenos Aires after Switzerland midfielder Blerim Dzemaili came within an inch of taking their game to penalties. A game Argentina never looked too convinced they could win.

Dzemaili's late header crashed off the post, just two minutes after Angel Di Maria had finally taken advantage of a Lionel Messi through ball to put Argentina ahead in extra time. Until then, Argentine fans had been on the edge of their seats and one cannot blame them. Indeed, that apprehension is not only motivated by some of the close shaves they have had in this World Cup so far; in their past few tournaments, Argentina have felt jinxed. You have to go back to Italy '90 to find the last time the Albiceleste went past the quarterfinals -- in that case they made it to the final only to lose to West Germany after a late second-half penalty was awarded for a questionable foul on Jurgen Klinsmann.

ArgentinaArgentina
SwitzerlandSwitzerland
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Match 55
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Since then, Argentina have crashed and burned. Sometimes badly; often at the hands of the Germans, who had the best of them in 2006 and 2010 -- in the latter they were blown out of the water with a 4-0 drubbing. On both occasions Messi was present, albeit with less influence than he has now, and he has made it his personal mission to keep them alive thus far in Brazil. His goals had already been crucial in the group stages and, to seal their progress to the quarterfinals, it was his ability to open up spaces for his teammates that made the difference.

Argentine fans will be happy with qualification, but there will be an uneasy feeling playing in the back of their minds. It has been 28 years of hurt in the World Cup since their last triumph in 1986, and while the young Albiceleste cheered up supporters with their Olympic double in 2004 and 2008 -- which makes Brazil the only South American country to never win gold -- the 1993 Copa America is the last official tournament they've won since Diego Maradona led them to glory in Mexico.

Yet when one looks at all the players who have worn the blue and white sacred shirt during that period, it is puzzling that Argentina haven't done better. Just a few of the top-class names are: Gabriel Batistuta, Juan Sebastian Veron, Fernando Redondo, Juan Roman Riquelme and Javier Zanetti. It's an embarrassment of riches in every sense. Generation after generation has come and looked as though it would go on to do great things. Invariably, though, they have come up short. "They have never been able to put these players together in a team and that proved costly to Argentina," is the reasoning of Brazilian legend Falcao.

In this sense, the class of 2014 have provided something different. While not as star-studded as previous incarnations, they boast Messi as the star and, around him, come able lieutenants like Di Maria and Sergio Aguero. Dreaming of attaining greatness on enemy soil, Argentina arrived in Brazil to play in a group that didn't look daunting as it contained Nigeria, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iran.

Reality proved slightly different and, although they topped the group, they have struggled much more than people expected. On the positive side, while the supporting cast have not jelled, Messi has delivered and that is what fans will hold on to. Argentina will be encouraged, once again, by the fact that their talisman produced a moment of magic against Switzerland to get them to the quarterfinals -- just as the European side were on the verge of becoming the first in this competition to keep him quiet.

Angel Di Maria was the hero, after struggling throughout the game.

This time Messi didn't seem to be playing on his own, though. Winger Di Maria was at the centre of things and portrayed the image of a man fighting to deal with the tactical mess into which he was placed by coach Alejandro Sabella. Previously a midfielder with permission to roam to the left, he was transformed in this match into something resembling an Aguero clone, but without the finishing prowess. Still, after a game in which he did not seem comfortable, Di Maria showed his class when dispatching Messi's perfect pass in the dying minutes of extra time.

Messi, though, was once again the man who orchestrated the move, picking up a pass and driving at the heart of the defence before playing his teammate in. In this tournament, he has found the knack of showing up at the right place at the right time. This is not Argentina circa 1986, in which Maradona was almost worshipped by his band of brothers in Mexico, but there is no doubt here that this is Messi's show and that this team will run for him. In Sao Paulo, Argentina looked very tired after 90 minutes and Messi seemed to find a burst of energy just at the right time.

In his usually humble way, he also recognised luck played a part at the very end. "I guess luck was on our side today, but that's football," he said about Dzemaili's miss. Argentina may not have convinced, but the win over the Swiss moved them closer to their dream of a third title and massive bragging rights over their South American rivals. Sabella's side still rely heavily upon Messi -- that will not have gone unnoticed by opposition -- but how many times they can rely on him to bail them out remains to be seen.