Zabaleta's Argentina squeeze through to the quarters
- 01 July 2014 19:43
- Posted by @markbooth_mcfc
Argentina’s dreams of clinching a first FIFA World Cup in 28 years survived the closest of inspections as they just advanced to the quarter-finals with a 1-0 win over Switzerland after extra-time.
In regulation time, it was a match that went against the grain of this consistently enthralling tournament as both sides played out a drab stalemate before a fatigued, goal-less 28 minutes of extra-time.
Penalties looked a certainty until Angel Di Maria stepped up to sweep home the winning goal with just two minutes of extra-time left to play.
Pablo Zabaleta played all 120 minutes for the two-time champions and was a useful outlet going forward and defensively, bombing on from full-back to lend the extra man to attacks and successfully shackling Ricardo Rodriguez and Admir Mehmedi down the Swiss left.
In all, Pablo completed 94% of his 29 passes, won 100% of his aerial duels and made four clearances to help his team over the line.
Before the Argentina XI was announced, it was already known that Sergio Aguero would miss for this showdown with the Swiss after he limped out of their final group match against Nigeria with a thigh strain.
Rumours that the City ace would be missing if the two-time champions could make it through to the quarter-finals were wide of the mark, according to Albiceleste coach Alejandro Sabella.
Martin Demichelis, who has yet to see any action in Brazil, was named once again among the substitutes.
"A 100% record in the group stages was achieved in an unfussy, unspectacular fashion as Argentina topped a group including Nigeria, Iran and Bosnia-Herzegovina."
...Argentina v Switzerland: Match report...
Ominously for the remaining teams in the tournament, they have yet to showcase the devastating form they displayed in COMNEBAL qualification but World Cups are never won in the first two weeks of the competition.
Were they deliberately playing within themselves with the intention of peaking at the right time, or would Switzerland present them with their first serious test of their credentials?
Ezequiel Lavezzi replaced Aguero in the side as Sabella’s men lined up in an attacking 4-3-3 formation, with Zabaleta providing his usual lung-busting coverage of the right flank.
All six group winners had booked their places in the last eight over the previous three days but it was immediately obvious from the cautious tone of the opening exchanges that neutrals may be in for a wait in finding out if Argentina would keep up this record.
The first chance for either side arrived after 27 minutes when Switzerland’s Granit Xhaka forced Sergio Romero into a good save low down with a strike from the edge of the area.
A minute later, Higuain missed a chance to edge Argentina’s noses in front when a whipped-in cross evaded his head by inches.
Five minutes before the half-time break, Romero was fortunate not to be punished for a moment of indecision as he hesitated before opting not to come out and claim a through ball but Josep Drmic got his attempted dink all wrong and played in straight into the ‘keeper’s grateful arms.
The South Americans had been far from their brilliant best in the first-half and their talismanic leading scorer Lionel Messi had been unable to influence the game.
This cagey war of attrition continued into the second period as Omar Hitzfeld’s underdogs squeezed the opposition into the middle third of the pitch, reducing the space for Angel Di Maria and Lavezzi to run into behind the full-backs.
"Higuain did force Diego Benaglio into a fine save on the hour mark with a firm header which required the goalkeeper to turn it over the crossbar and seven minutes later Messi’s excellent volley was inches too high."
...Argentina v Switzerland: Match report...
With 20 minutes left, Sabella brought Rodrigo Palacio on in place of Lavezzi in a bid to reignite a team that had started to drift after their promisingly bright ten minute spell.
As they have throughout the competition so far, Argentina were relying on individual moments of quality to win the day and Messi nearly supplied one when he wriggled himself a yard of space on the edge of the area but his drive was beaten away by Benaglio.
Neither side could fashion another meaningful chance and so the match went into an extra time period in which both sides’ exertions in the 90 minutes were there for all to see.
Zabaleta made a couple of crucial interventions in this time but penalties had long looked an inevitability – that was until Di Maria neatly slotted home the winner from a Messi assist with just two minutes left on the clock.
Hearts were in Argentine mouths when Blerim Dzemaili hit the post with a header from a corner in the last minute but but Pablo’s side just held on for the win.
They will face the winners of Belgium v USA on Saturday.