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Argentina

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 By Sam Kelly

Argentina still below their best

The ESPN expert panel discuss Argentina's last-gasp win against Switzerland and question whether they can keep coming up with late heroics.

"The players are better than this. We shouldn't be suffering so much ... we can't carry on playing as if we're 'Deportivo Messi'."

They could be the words of any Argentina fan, but they were said by just one -- the team's main cheerleader. Diego Maradona might have made a pig's ear of the Argentina job when he had it, but on this occasion, at least (on the nightly TV show he hosts from FIFA's International Broadcasting Centre in Rio), he's perfectly summed up the frustrations of watching Argentina in this World Cup so far.

ArgentinaArgentina
SwitzerlandSwitzerland
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Match 55
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In 2010, it was plain to all that as soon as Maradona's side came up against opposition who could match them for talent, they'd be beaten due to lack of defensive stability and tactical nous.

So it proved, in spectacular fashion: They were dispatched 4-0 by Germany in the quarter-finals. This time around, the side seem less likely to be overrun defensively; bizarrely though, given their personnel, they're struggling to click in attack.

The 118th-minute goal which gave them a 1-0 extra time victory over Switzerland on Tuesday might have been scored by Angel Di María, but it was yet another example in this tournament of Lionel Messi's genius at a key moment of a match in which Argentina had been largely frustrated.

Messi might not have scored -- James Rodriguez is thus the only player in this World Cup still able to 'do a Jairzinho' and score in every game -- but the quality of his assist was unquestioned.

- Jolly: USA defend deep; versatile Di Maria
- Duarte: Messi continues to lift supporting cast

As Maradona says, though, the attack isn't flowing. Argentina talked a good game postmatch; they had plenty of shots, Swiss goalkeeper Diego Benaglio was arguably the man of the match and, for all Switzerland's talent, Ottmar Hitzfeld's men only briefly looked like being the better side.

But none of that changes the fact that Argentina were a mere two minutes away from a penalty shootout against a team with a German manager and a goalkeeper who's known as a specialist in saving spot kicks.

The fans here in Buenos Aires whom I've spoken to in the hours after the match realise it wasn't a perfect performance, but they aren't overly concerned. After all, as they rightly point out, it's better to have played poorly but still be in the tournament than to have played well but been eliminated. There's a quiet belief here, it seems to me, that the attack will come good soon.

I'm a little less convinced. Prior to the tournament, I wrote that Fernando Gago's role for Argentina was vital because it is he who gets the ball to Messi in good positions and with good service. When Gago came on against Bosnia-Herzegovina at half time, his introduction -- along with that of Gonzalo Higuain -- undoubtedly changed the team and helped Messi to put the game beyond doubt.

Argentina can't continually rely on Lionel Messi to carry them.

Since then, though, Gago has looked less impressive, and the midfield pairing he's formed with Javier Mascherano has been a little one-dimensional.

And all the while, Messi has been deciding games anyway. I'm beginning to think the time is right to introduce a more mobile option in Gago's place; Enzo Pérez and Lucas Biglia would both be alternatives who'd provide more between the lines than the Boca Juniors man.

Ultimately, although Argentina seem totally different to the side who stormed through qualifying, they really just need one or two small changes to look more convincing.

Di María's confidence could be one such change. He was poor -- but as full of running as ever -- on Tuesday, but that late goal might just breathe new life into his belief in this campaign.

Argentina will have to step it up against Belgium in the quarter-final on Saturday, but it's not outside their capabilities to do so. In a World Cup where none of the favourites have truly impressed consistently, they still have the air of an unknown quantity about them.

Sam Kelly

Sam Kelly is based in Buenos Aires and has been ESPN FC's South America correspondent since 2008. He also writes for When Saturday Comes, The Blizzard (both U.K.) and Howler (U.S.) and previews Argentine Primera Division matches for Hong Kong Jockey Club. He is the producer of Hand Of Pod, the Internet's finest (OK, only) English-language Argentine football podcast and tweets as @HEGS_com.