The Barcelona star provided the game's outstanding moment, a slick assist to Angel Di Maria to see his side into the last eight after a titanic struggleSAO PAULO -- Lionel Messi made the difference once again to send Argentina into the World Cup quarterfinals. But, like so many of the great footballing nations they will join in the last eight, they still have yet to truly stake their claim to be the world’s best come July 13.
We are still waiting for a convincing performance from one of the World Cup’s outstanding nations, and the Albiceleste took until the dying moments of extra-time to see off a Switzerland side that until then had an answer to everything Alejandro Sabella’s side had attempted.
That Messi should come up with the solution, bursting through a tiring Swiss backline and teeing up Angel Di Maria to side-foot superbly across Diego Benaglio, should not have come as any surprise.
But the nature of the win, and the fact Blerim Dzemaili came within inches of an immediate equalizer, will leave Sabella and his staff with plenty still to ponder.
They had been put under pressure long before then too, with Switzerland having most of the better chances in the first half. Granit Xhaka shot meekly at Sergio Romero after a great piece of skill from Xherdan Shaqiri had allowed the Bayern man to cut back to his well-placed teammate. It wasn’t their only big chance either.
Moments before halftime, Shaqiri poked a great return pass into space for Josip Drmic to run onto, with Romero having made the puzzling decision to stay at home. But the striker couldn’t make the most of the chance, deciding to attempt a chip over the goalkeeper only to drop it tamely into Romero’s arms.
They were opportunities that Ottmar Hitzfeld and his side appeared destined to regret.
Argentina had opportunities of its own in the second half, with Gonzalo Higuain forcing a save out of Diego Benaglio before substitute Rodrigo Palacio glanced just wide with his first touch of the game.
As the waves of pressure began to intensify, Messi fired one chance just over from distance and then fired in a shot low at the near post, with Benaglio getting down quick to save before getting a knee from Palacio for his troubles.
But, for all their domination, they just couldn’t find a way to break the deadlock. With Valon Behrami working double time ahead of the back four, it took moments of sheer genius for Messi to get anything more than a couple of yards to himself.
Extra-time brought plenty of ‘Oles’ from the crowd, but unexpectedly they came in support of some fancy play from Switzerland. By that point they needed to keep the ball as much to conserve some energy as they did for any attempt to find a winner.
Di Maria tested Benaglio from distance, but while Argentina probed around the area for long spells it remained largely toothless. For every Messi incision, there was a poor read here and a heavy touch there.
Then came the moment when Messi escaped and fed Di Maria. The goal was met with an incredible release of emotion in the stands, but they so nearly had a different taste in their mouths before the game was over.
First Dzemaili headed against the far post from an inswinging free kick, then Shaqiri wasted a great set-piece chance in the three minutes of stoppages.
When the final whistle blew, Argentines all around the ground took off their shirts and swung them around above their heads.
They are beginning to believe, but - with the side just one of a number who could yet put a run of form together – they know there could well be more hairy moments to come.
Argentina is through, but only just.Follow Kris Voakes on