Argentina's match-winning goal, when it finally arrived, was almost infuriating in its simplicity. Taking advantage of tired Swiss legs, Lionel Messi summoned his last reserves of energy to embark on another run to stretch the defence. On approaching the area, a neat pass had an entire nation holding its breath.
Who would the ball fall to? One Angel Di Maria, who in extra time had suddenly appeared as a genuine threat following 90 dreadful minutes. The Real Madrid man did not hesitate.
A low shot flashed across the body of goalkeeper Diego Benaglio—helpless as the ball hit the back of the net—and the whole of Argentina released a relieved scream. After yet another display where the Albiceleste had failed to fire on all cylinders, Alejandro Sabella's men were on the way to the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup.
The identity of the scorer is telling. For large periods of the game Di Maria had been an ineffective, if not a downright damaging presence in the Argentine attack. Switzerland had done their homework; they knew that defending deep and with bodies behind the ball, as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iran showed, would blunt an all-star forward line.
Give the likes of Messi and Di Maria any space at all, and they will punish you. Nigeria can attest to that fact, despite a fine 90 minutes against the South Americans. But if La Pulga, and especially the Madrid star, are starved of room to operate, the game begins to change.
Sabella experimented with Di Maria in places across the pitch. He popped up on the left, cut in from the right-hand side and through the middle, all with a similar effect. Fideo was dangerous enough to constantly battle with the attentions of two Swiss markers, but his final delivery and overall distribution made for painful watching.
Twenty-one of the winger's 57 passes went astray, for a shoddy completion rate of 63 percent (per Four Four Two). He took a total of 12 shots on goal, some better than others, but the majority were a symptom of a quality player playing well below his best and not knowing what to do. Di Maria has come a long way in the last few years, but all of a sudden we were in a time machine, as his erratic displays of 2010, 2011 vintage appeared.
As 90 minutes came and went without goals, however, the player who was so vital in Madrid's march to the Decima finally showed his face. Di Maria took advantage of Switzerland's fatigue to open up the game in the opposition half, running more directly and with more purpose than previously. If there is one virtue we can attribute to the Rosario native, it is his stamina; seeing him hare down the pitch in the 119th minute, one would swear he possessed two hot air balloons for lungs.
The unlucky European side showed they could handle the 26-year-old in regular time, but just as Atletico Madrid found out so cruelly in the Champions League final, you just cannot count on Di Maria running out of steam.
It is ironic that, in his worst game so far of an uneven World Cup, Di Maria became Argentina's hero. But he is not the only one who needed to step up. Gonzalo Higuain continued with his impression of the Invisible Man, while Ezequiel Lavezzi was effective in fits and starts and substitute Rodrigo Palacio lacked the pace to push Argentina forward in the decisive minutes.
Messi, and from further back the magnificent Javier Mascherano, rapidly improving full-back Marcos Rojo and old hand Pablo Zabaleta on the other flank, are carrying Argentina through the tournament so far. But as Fideo demonstrated on Tuesday, all is not lost. The Albiceleste's stars can appear in the blink of an eye; and if they do find their form, be it on Saturday or even in the final itself, Sabella's charges will remain a force to be reckoned with.
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