SAO PAULO – Argentina’s theme at this World Cup seems to be scrappy victories, with superstar Lionel Messi pulling through at the last minute to save the day.
This time Messi didn’t score on his own, but set the stage for Angel Di Maria to score an extra-time winner for a 1-0 victory over Switzerland.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s beautiful or ugly,” Di Maria said. “Only that Argentina won and will play another game in the tournament.”
Argentina will meet Belgium in the quarterfinals on Saturday.
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Except for its final group-stage victory over Nigeria, Argentina has won its matches in Brazil in the same manner — grinding down its opponents rather than dazzling them with brilliant soccer.
“We had luck on our side,” Messi said. “We have to take advantage of that and move on.”
In the first half, Argentina struggled to find paths through Switzerland’s five-man midfield, and it was the Swiss that produced the best scoring chances.
Granit Xhaka pushed Sergio Romero to a great save and Josip Drmic wasted a great opportunity when he tried to chip the ball over the Argentina goalkeeper.
When cracks started opening in the defense in the second half, goalkeeper Diego Benaglio kept Switzerland in the match, stopping Gonzalo Higuain’s header and Messi’s low shot in the 78th minute.
Benaglio also saved a powerful attempt by Di Maria in extra time, and it looked as if the Swiss would be able to push the game into a penalty shootout.
Then, in the 118th minute, Rodrigo Palacio won the ball in midfield and fed Messi, who dribbled down the middle in trademark fashion, escaping a challenge from Swiss defender Fabian Schaer before poking the ball to Di Maria. Unmarked, the Real Madrid player beat Benaglio with his 10th goal in Argentina’s colors.
“At times I was nervous because we couldn’t score a goal, and any mistake could have knocked us out of the World Cup,” said Messi, who has scored four of Argentina’s seven goals. “When you are here, you don’t have an easy opponent.”
Swiss substitute Blerim Dzemaili nearly equalized moments before the end but his header hit the post — and the rebound bounced off his leg and wide of the goal.
Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, whose brother died at age 81 on the eve of the match, said his team leaves the tournament with “our heads high.”
“We made life very tough for them,” he said. “They managed to keep their cool. It shows Argentina has a good team.”
Hitzfeld said it was his last match as a coach. He had earlier said he would quit after the tournament.
His Argentine counterpart, Alejandro Sabella, said he thought his team played a “wonderful match,” though he conceded there is room for improvement.
“It was a match that we deserved to win,” said Sabella. “The first half was very even. They had two clear chances and after that the match was ours.”
Argentina will not have left back Marcos Rojo when it plays Belgium. Rojo is suspended after receiving two yellow cards.
• Netherlands midfielder Nigel de Jong is unlikely to play again in the World Cup after tests confirmed he has a tear in a groin muscle.
De Jong will be out for an estimated two to four weeks.