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Argentina 1 Switzerland 0: Lionel Messi escapes at the death to set up the winner

FINALLY, four games and almost 400 minutes into a tournament in which he has continually hauled his underperforming team-mates out of the mire, it looked like Lionel Messi had buckled.

Diego Benaglio, the Switzerland goalkeeper, fails to save Angel di Maria's late winner for Argentina. Di Maria was played through by Lionel Messi who, up until that point, had been well shackled. Picture: Pawel Kopczunski/Reuters
Diego Benaglio, the Switzerland goalkeeper, fails to save Angel di Maria's late winner for Argentina. Di Maria was played through by Lionel Messi who, up until that point, had been well shackled. Picture: Pawel Kopczunski/Reuters

Half-time in extra-time and Argentina's manager, Alejandro Sabella, has his players gathered around him in a circle on the pitch. He is bellowing instructions, trying everything he can to motivate a side lacking the invention required to see off a Switzerland side becoming progressively more determined to suffocate their opponents into submission.

As the others listen intently, Messi and his colleague from Barcelona, Javier Mascherano, are bent over, palms resting on their knees, staring directly at the turf in the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo.

There is no eye contact with Sabella or the other members of the squad. There has, of course, been talk of friction between captain and head coach since their opening fixture of the tournament, rumours that Messi forced Sabella to make the crucial switch from 5-3-2 to 4-3-3 during the interval in that 2-1 win over Bosnia & Herzegovina.

When the pep talk is over and everyone else has disappeared, Messi and Mascherano remain in position, exchanging views on the ever more turgid stalemate playing out in front of them.

One can only guess what these two men, men who have scaled such heights in their club careers at Camp Nou, had to say to each other. It does not take a genius, however, to imagine what Messi must make of the demands being made upon him by a collection of players seemingly incapable of winning matches without his influence.

This time, though, the mountain to climb against these men from the Alps appeared too great.

Messi looked drained. At one stage in extra-time, he appeared to be touching his hamstring. He had been shackled throughout by Valon Behrami, aided by his energetic captain Gokhan Inler, and the frustration was beginning to show.

With four minutes of normal time remaining, Behrami, hardened in the art of shutting down opponents from his years of service in Italy's Serie A, was right on top of Messi as he won possession and bundled him over to concede a free-kick.

Messi gathered the ball, rose to his feet and pushed the Napoli midfielder out of sheer anger. There was little in the incident, itself, but it is most unlike the Argentine to show such ill-discipline on the field.

The flashpoint merited a strong word to both players from the referee, Jonas Eriksson of Sweden, and hinted that, this time, the man the Albiceleste rely on so desperately in times of trouble was running out of ideas.

This match had been painted as an opportunity for the diminutive, left-footed Xherdan Shaqiri, branded 'The Alpine Messi', to show his worth against the real thing.

In truth, the Swiss midfielder didn't show up badly at all. Shaqiri was easily the most influential player on the park during the first 45 minutes, producing one excellent piece of play from a short corner to set up Granit Xhaka for a shot saved by Sergio Romero and then putting Josip Drmic straight through on goal with a diagonal pass from the centre of the field.

The less said about Drmic's attempts to chip Romero, the better.

As the match developed and Switzerland became less adventurous, he slowly slipped out of centre stage. Messi was sure to play a defining role in things again after scoring four of his team's six goals in the competition so far. Wasn't he?

With 78 minutes on the clock, he finally did find space in the final third, but his low shot was saved by goalkeeper Diego Benaglio and the Argentinian substitute, Rodrigo Palacio, just could not connect with the rebound under pressure from Johan Djourou.

Palacio had given the South Americans a greater sense of purpose since replacing the hugely disappointing Ezequiel Lavezzi with just over quarter of an hour to go in normal time. With Messi looking broken and beaten, resigned to a penalty shoot-out in which four other people in blue-and-white would have to take responsibility, the Internazionale forward offered Messi an opportunity with 90 seconds of injury-time remaining to summon up one last surge of strength.

Good Lord, how Messi responded. Palacio picked up possession on the left flank and fed the ball inside to his captain. With a zip that looked to have left him quite some time earlier, Messi surged towards the Switzerland area, skilfully swerving to the right to avoid a cynical and wholly understandable attempt by Fabian Schaer to clean him out.

Angel di Maria, as he does, was thundering up the right flank in space. Messi spotted him, released an inch-perfect pass and the rest is history. Di Maria has been one of the few players outwith Messi to have shown his ability in Brazil and, although yesterday was not his finest overall performance, his left-footed finish rendered any criticism meaningless.

For all that, Sabella's side almost blew it in stoppage-time. Blerim Dzemaili was allowed to get his head to Shaqiri's free-kick and saw his downward header come back off the base of the upright, ricochet off his left thigh and go agonisingly wide.

Much had been made pre-match of how Pope Francis, a self-confessed football nut from Buenos Aires, had joked with the Swiss guards who protect him around the Vatican that "this is going to be war". He even turned down an invitation to watch the game with them on the big-screen set up in their barracks.

Perhaps the hand - or should that be near post? - of God did return to serve as some kind of factor in this win.

One thing for sure is that Argentina will soon find that Messi cannot be their saviour every time they take the field. Unfortunately, there is little in the collection of mere mortals surrounding him to inspire any great confidence.

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