Tuesday in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Lionel Messi saved his Argentine teammates with an assist on an Angel di Maria score, in extra time, at the 118th minute, to defeat a gallant but strange Swiss team and progress to the quarterfinals of the World Cup.
The headline in the Argentine daily La Prensa was "Argentina suffers but beats Switzerland." Messi was quoted by La Nacion after the game and commenting on the header off the post, he said: "Today luck was on our side." The Swiss daily, Luzerner Zeitung, had as its front page headline: "Swiss dreams destroyed at the 118th minute."
The lone score came when, once again, a Swiss defender with control of the ball and just enough time to clear or tap the ball out of bounds, decided to dribble around the attacker right on top of him. The defender lost it. The immediate Argentine pass was sent to Messi who bore down on the middle of the box, as if a point guard and dished right to di Maria who slotted home from close range.
Given the time of possession and the chances created the result was not unfair. But the manner in which the result was obtained left a funny taste, the way the Dutch victories over Chile and Mexico did, or the Argentine victory over Iran did, or the Croatian win over Cameroon did, or the way some of the calls in favor of Germany over Algeria did.
When one looks at the fouls called they seemed to consistently help Argentina more than Switzerland. We saw two particularly curious sequences. In one, Messi picked up a ball after a foul was committed on him and as he and a Swiss player were getting up the Argentine striker pushed the Swiss defender down in order to place the ball for a quick free kick. No foul was called, no admonition ensued, but instead the advantageous quick retake was allowed.
Then, after handing out yellow cards to Swiss players during regular time, but none for consistent fouls by Argentina's Ezequiel Garay, or violent fouls by Fernando Gago and Javier Mascherano, the ref decided that Marcos Rojo deserved a yellow card at the 89:40 minute mark. Then, after the goal was scored, di Maria was judged to deserve a yellow at the 119:46 minute, and Garay finally earned his at the 120th minute. Needless to say by game's end the yellows were evened out, but all three Argentine yellows were so tardy as to be inconsequential.
But there was a stranger quality to this match that was hard to grasp.
The game struck one as similar to the 0-0 draw between Ecuador and France that saw the South Americans celebrating after being eliminated. In this match, the Swiss seemed to have the measure of Argentina, nullifying Messi and rendering all but di Maria affective against their packed defense. Then, when the opportunities came their way, and they came about three to four a half, and a couple in each extra time, the same Swiss team who scored seven goals in three group games could but rarely pass or shoot right anywhere past midfield.
The strangeness became bizarre when it almost seemed as if the Swiss did not want to score. Plays would die just over the half-line mark due to silly mistakes that somehow did not occur during their numerous defensive stands. On three separate occasions the Europeans failed to convert when it seemed to have been easier to score than to miss as artlessly as they did.
At the 38th minute, Switzerland’s Josip Drmic was the recipient of a long pass/ricochet off a midfield collision between opposing players that left the streaking striker bearing down on Sergio Romero with the closest Argentine defenders trailing many yards behind. With an opportunity to do anything, including a long rolling shot to the wide open right of goal, Drmic went left, and decided to chip Romero to the side the keeper was already occupying. Only the chip reached about the level of the goalkeeper’s shoulders and was caught with the ease one might if a child had lofted a ball in a game of catch.
At the 50th minute Xeridan Shaqiri set up Drmic in the Argentine box with a clear shot at goal from about eight yards left of the penalty spot, and the striker managed not to get the shot on goal but instead kicked it over the crossbar and into the higher seats.
Once Argentina scored, the Swiss, who had played defensively all game, came out of their shell and went on attack for the remainder of the match, including bringing keeper Diego Benaglio into attack for several minutes. They obtained several opportunities, but they were all blocked or went otherwise begging, until another sequence left one perplexed.
At the 120th minute Shaqiri sent a corner to Blerim Dzemaili who headed down powerfully but hit the left post. The ball bounced right back at him at about five feet from the Argentine goal line. The Swiss midfielder decided he needed to try an awkward left footed shot, and that it had to be taken toward the sliver of available goal on the left side instead of aiming at the other nine tenths of the goal available to him on the right. He missed putting the ball on goal altogether—from five feet! In fairness, it was a very fast play, and he would have had to convert off a tough ricochet, but what a time to make so many poor decisions, when diving at the ball and simply blocking it into the goal, with any part of his body, would have been the easiest thing to do.
At game’s end Messi and di Maria embraced, knowing they had dodged their umpteenth bullet, remained alive, and gave themselves an opportunity to play again. Maybe next time they will put their great talents to use in a coordinated manner, at the same time, and more effectively. Then again, they will next meet Belgium, not Germany, Brazil, France, or Colombia.