Argentina qualify for World Cup quarter-finals
Angel Di Maria’s extra-time winner carried Argentina into the World Cup quarter-finals after an unconvincing display against Switzerland.
The two-time champions dominated possession in a turgid last-16 tie, but were unable to break through until Di Maria swept in Lionel Messi’s pass.
Switzerland defender Blerim Dzemaili headed against the Argentina post then prodded wide after Di Maria’s winner.
Argentina will face Belgium, who beat the USA, in the last eight on Saturday.
It was a remarkable conclusion to a match that saw Argentina, rated among the favourites to win the World Cup, produce another distinctly average performance in neighbouring Brazil.
Real Madrid winger Di Maria was wasteful in promising positions throughout but kept his composure when it mattered most, coolly sweeping an angled shot into the bottom corner after Messi’s pass found him advancing into the area.
About 40,000 Argentina fans were estimated to be inside the Arena de Sao Paulo and Di Maria’s late intervention sparked wild celebrations between players and fans.
But it was a heartbreaking end for Switzerland and particularly their veteran coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, whose 31-year managerial career ended in cruel fashion.
The 65-year-old German, who was twice voted World Coach of the Year, retires after winning 19 major club trophies for Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Grasshoppers.
Argentina failed to find top form during the group stage as Messi’s brilliance inspired them to three narrow victories against Bosnia-Hercegovina, Iran and Nigeria.
And they failed to impress again as Switzerland, who progressed as Group E runners-up with wins against Ecuador and Honduras, frustrated them for long periods.
Hitzfeld appeared to have instructed his defence to sit deep and crowd out Argentina’s attacking players, which worked perfectly as the South Americans dominated possession but had few clear-cut chances to show for it. Messi was regularly deprived of space in the first half by a host of red shirts.
The Swiss offered little forward threat themselves, focusing more on keeping their shape.
But just before the half-hour mark, it was Hitzfeld’s side who created the best chances of the opening 45 minutes.
Xherdan Shaqiri’s cute cutback found Granit Xhaka, whose drilled shot was palmed clear by Sergio Romero. And the Argentina keeper then sprang quickly to his feet to block Stephan Lichtsteiner’s long-range shot seconds later.
It might have served as a warning for Argentina – but they failed to take notice.
Shaqiri pinched possession to pick out Josip Drmic but, as an indecisive Romero decided to stay close to his goalline, the Swiss striker’s attempted chip was easily gathered by the Argentine.
Although the South Americans began to move the ball more quickly after the interval, only Messi looked capable of unlocking Switzerland’s sturdy defence.
The Barcelona star sent a vicious volley dipping over the crossbar before jinking into the penalty area shortly after, forcing Diego Benaglio to push out his low shot.
Switzerland barely moved the ball out of their own half in the final 20 minutes as Messi continued to orchestrate Argentina’s best attacking moves.