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Angel Di Maria strikes deep in extra time as Argentina defeat Switzerland 1-0
The Real Madrid star scores from Lionel Messi's cute through ball
Argentina were far from their best but continue to march on in Brazil
They will meet the United States or Brazil in the quarterfinal
This World Cup is no protector of reputations.
Nor is it anything other than steadfast in its refusal to reveal any clear favorite to hoist the 20th incarnation of football’s prime feast.
Argentina certainly counts as one of a pool of nations capable of capturing glory, but its performances so far have shown a worrying brittleness.
Still, it just keeps on winning and can now look forward to a last eight clash with either the United States or Belgium.
The latest side to come close to toppling La Albiceleste was Switzerland, but just like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria before them, one moment of magic was all that separated the two in Tuesday’s penultimate last-16 clash.
With the contest a matter of seconds away from penalties, the decisive blow was conjured between two men who operate at opposite ends of Spain’s fiercest rivalry.
Lionel Messi, of Barcelona, drove deep into Swiss territory and swept the ball wide for Real Madrid’s Angel Di Maria, who stroked confidently into the corner.
Yet there was still more agony for Switzerland to endure.
With even its goalkeeper playing as a striker, a point-blank header from Blerim Dzemaili crashed against the post before squirming wide in the 122nd minute.
Argentina’s fevered reaction upon the final whistle underscored a palpable sense of relief that its bandwagon continues to edge closer to a first triumph since 1986.
“I was nervous towards the end because we couldn’t score and any mistake could have knocked us out,” Argentina captain Messi told a press conference.
“The minutes were passing by and we didn’t want the match to go to penalties. We were suffering, but we had a special play, I passed to Angel and now we can celebrate.”
With Switzerland keen to limit any slice of space for Argentina’s array of attacking talent to operate in, the opening stages of the game in Sao Paulo were predictably tight.
There was a glimpse of goal for Messi a little under the quarter hour mark but his stabbed cross-shot was pocketed by Swiss goalkeeper Diego Benaglio.
Once the contest had settled into a pattern, Argentina’s failure to engage an powerful offensive arsenal afforded Switzerland a growing confidence which reflected in its play.
The game’s first gilt-edged opening arrived on 28 minutes, and it was one carved out by two players who operate in Germany’s Bundesliga.
Bayern Munich star Xherdan Shaqiri found midfielder Granit Xhaka, who plays for Borussia Mönchengladbach, with a pullback but his low, powerful drive was repelled by Sergio Romero.
Paris Saint-Germain star Ezequiel Lavezzi tested Benaglio from striker Gonzalo Higuain’s knockdown as Argentina looked to reassert its dominance.
Shaqiri was again the provider when a sharp counter attack released Josip Drmic in on goal.
With Romero caught in two minds whether to hunt down the through ball, the Bayer Leverkusen striker looked to take advantage with a chip but got the execution horribly wrong.
Argentina’s stopper continued to look uncertain after the interval as he spilled a Shaqiri free kick from range and had to scramble to prevent the ball from escaping his penalty area.
As the hour mark loomed Argentina rediscovered a glimmer of its attacking brio, with Switzerland forced to retreat further and further towards its own goal.
As red-shirted legs became heavy La Albiceleste pressed for the breakthrough and Benaglio was prompted into action when Marcos Rojo’s attempted cross crept towards the net.
Higuain then rose highest to power a header towards goal but Benaglio was alert to acrobatically divert the Napoli striker’s effort over the bar.
Perhaps inspired by the goal of the tournament so far – James Rodriguez’s explosive volley in Colombia’s last-16 win over Uruguay – Messi attempted his own, firing narrowly over the bar.
It looked as though Messi’s moment had arrived on 78 minutes as he picked up the ball on the edge of the box and jinked onto his wand of a left foot.
But just as the thousands of Argentina fans inside the stadium prepared to hail their saviour once more, Benaglio flung out his right hand to make a superb save and ensure the game remained goalless.
As Algeria had done the previous evening, Switzerland burrowed away with the prospect of an extra half an hour the prize at the end of a long, weary tunnel.
And despite a few nervous moments, when the right weight of pass or split second decision could have fashioned a late winner, the Swiss saw it through to the end of 90 minutes.
The extra half hour continued in the same vain, the Swiss content to soak up pressure in a congested final third and look for counter attacking opportunities.
Benaglio was called upon to save from a glancing header from Rodrigo Palacio while Messi was lucky to escape a booking after a tangle with Valon Behrami.
Di Maria, who enjoyed such a stellar end of season with European Champions League winners Real Madrid, cut a profligate figure through the game, but tested Benaglio with a stinging drive from range.
And his big moment would arrive, as so many of Argentina’s have, via the boots of Messi.
The three-time FIFA Ballon d’Or winner drove towards a flagging Swiss defense before offloading to Di Maria, whose precise finish back across Benaglio found the far corner.
That sparked delirium among the hordes of traveling Argentina fans but its side’s leaky rearguard almost offered up another twist in the game’s dying stages.
With Benaglio installed as center forward, a succession of crosses flowed into Argentina’s penalty area.
From one, midfielder Blerim Dzemaili found himself unmarked and five yards from goal when the ball arrived at his eye level.
But his header cannoned off the post with Romero stranded and struck him once more, only for the ball to trickle wide of the upright.
Shaqiri then won a free kick right on the edge of the penalty area as nerves at both ends shredded yet further, but once the wall had repelled his effort the final whistle sounded.
Coach Alejandro Sabella stuck to the classic football adage of taking one game at a time. “Our dream is only to work for the next match and try to move onto the semifinals,” he said.
“We do not look beyond that. To do so would be a mistake as we have already seen good teams like Spain, Uruguay, Italy and England have gone out.”
Argentina limps on, but winning ugly won’t matter a jot to its players or fans should a first World Cup in 24 years result from it.