Arena de Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo
July 1st, 2014
Argentina take on Switzerland in the penultimate game of the Round of 16 in what promises to be an exciting contest. Although Argentina recorded 3 wins out of 3 in the group stage games they did not look entirely convincing and were indebted to stunning strikes from Lionel Messi to bail them out of tight situations. Switzerland, on the other hand, did not fare too well either and were hammered by France in their second group game. Things improved slightly in their last game thanks to a hat-trick from their talisman Xherdan Shaqiri but Ottmar Hitzfeld knows that his young side are in for a stern test on Tuesday evening.
Team news and tactical brief
The back four of Argentina is, without a doubt, their Achilles heel in their squad. Ezequiel Garay is a solid center-back even though he looked pretty shaky in all the three group games while Federico Fernandez is decent but doesn’t excel in any one particular area of defending. If the defensive midfielders protect the backline properly and the duo are given minimal responsibilities, they won’t be a major problem for Argentina, but if they need to chase games and leaves the centre-backs exposed, it won’t be pretty. Pablo Zabaleta is an extremely energetic fullback, strong in the tackle and an attacking force simply because he keeps on running. He tends to get too tight to his opponents and more often than not finds himself in awkward positions high up the pitch. Marcos Rojo on the other side is another one of Argentina’s weak link. The defending of set-pieces, meanwhile, is a major concern for this Argentina side as they lack a commanding aerial presence. Sergio Romero has done a very decent job so far in goal and will look to keep up his good form.
The midfielders have very separate roles. Javier Mascherano will position himself as a traditional holding midfielder, almost like a third center-back. He keeps his distribution simple and usually relies on short square passes. Fernando Gago remains a crucial part of Sabella’s plan. It was quite evident from the group games that Gago sits just ahead of Mascherano and generally holds his position leaving the attacking to the front four. He has a very good positional sense and his forward passing can be attractive. He spreads play nicely without providing many penetrative balls. Then there is Angel Di Maria, and while he is not the biggest star in this Argentina side, he is definitely their key player. Di Maria has always favoured a deeper and more central role by providing the balance and defensive discipline on the opposite side. He provides an attacking threat on the left while also playing an important defensive role. He breaks forward from midfield on the counter-attack, connecting the front three with midfield. Di Maria will try to penetrate the Swiss backline as quickly as possible with through balls for the three attackers but he is also capable of picking out the frontman with a precise long ball beyond the opposition backline. His incredibly demanding role is vital for Sabella but he will most likely come up against a relentless Valron Behrami, who would stick to him like a shadow and disrupt his natural game.
Messi is clearly the star, starting in an inside-right position. He always had a great understanding with Aguero, and Higuain too, and this makes the system work. He has already set the World Cup stage on fire with two cracking goals in the group stage and he has fond memories of playing against Switzerland (he scored a hattrick against them in 2012). Higuain will look to make clever runs to create space for the other two forwards, both towards the ball and on the flanks as well. He has been disappointing so far in this tournament but his knack of scoring decisive goals makes him an automatic choice for Argentina. Aguero will miss out due to a thigh injury and his place will be taken up by Ezequiel Lavezzi who had a very positive match against Nigeria after coming on as a sub.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1): Romero (GK); Rojo, Garay, Fernandez, Zabaleta; Gago, Mascherano ; Di Maria, Messi, Lavezzi; Higuan
Switzerland’s main area of strength is their full backs although the two of them play very different roles. Left back Ricardo Rodriguez came on the back of a fantastic league campaign with Wolfsburg and he has continued to impress in Brazil. He is often seen relentlessly charging forward and delivering a consistent number of brilliantly whipped crosses into the box, although Switzerland do not have a genuine striker to convert those. On the opposite flank, Stephan Lichtsteiner is a bundle of energy and rather than crossing the ball, he likes to dart in behind the opposition defence, and thrives on long, drifted balls towards the far post. They will be partnered in defence by the highly rated Fabian Schaar, who was surprisingly dropped for the first two games but came back in the third and more or less stabilized a leaky defence. Alongside him Johan Djourou will retain his place. Up against one of the most deadly attacking lineups in this world cup, Ottmar Hitzfeld knows that his defenders have to be flawless. Judging by their horror show against France, it seems they will be in for a tough night this Tuesday.
A Neapolitan double pivot in midfield will comprise of Swiss captain Gokhan Inler, who is a top-class all-round midfielder, extremely feisty in tackles and capable of picking out intelligent passes while he has an extremely powerful shot in his repertoire. His partner Valon Behrami is an effective hard working snatcher, who gets up and down and puts tackles in and he will have the mammoth task of stifling the Argentine attack.
The key player in the Swiss system is Granit Xhaka, a crafty number ten who always gets himself in dangerous positions in the final third, receiving forward passes and moving the ball onto the other attackers. Xhaka’s weakness is his inability to score goals. His lack of a goal threat is compensated for by his ex-Basel teammate Xherdan Shaqiri, a short but powerfully built athlete who routinely collects the ball on the right, shifts it onto his stronger left foot and unleashes powerful shots on goals. He scored a hattrick in his last game and will be a major cause of concern for the Argentine defence. On the opposite side Admir Mehmedi will offer pace and direct running. Upfront, Switzerland will rely on Josip Drmic whose hold-up and link-up play is not that great but he makes good runs into the channels and finishes quickly and coolly. He will be looking to convert his chances against a genuinely weak Argentine backline.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1): Benaglio (GK); Lichtsteiner, Djourou, Schaar, Rodriguez; Inler, Behrami; Shaqiri, Xhaka, Mehmedi; Drmic
Players to Watch Out For
Lionel Messi (Argentina)
After celebrating his birthday on Tuesday, Lionel Messi ran out for his country to face Nigeria on Wednesday and duly scored for the third successive World Cup game—netting his third and fourth goals of the competition as he helped Argentina to a 3-2 win. Messi was in prime form throughout the group stage games but now the big games really begin—there can be no slip-ups if Argentina want to reach next month’s final at the Maracana. To achieve that goal, Messi’s team-mates will need to step up to the plate, as surely the Barcelona star cannot continue to make the difference every single game.
Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)
Switzerland might not have the magic of Lionel Messi, but in Xherdan Shaqiri they have a player who is capable of producing the goods on the biggest stage of all. The former FC Basel star scored a stunning hat-trick to help his nation book a last-16 tie with Argentina , following Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Honduras in Manaus. He is usually at the heart of everything that Swiss do in attack. He links brilliantly with the front man and has so far shown a lot of composure in front of goal. If Switzerland are to go further then Shaqiri will have to play a big part in this massive game.
Argentina 3–1 Switzerland
The deciding factor in this game could be the shaky defence of the Swiss national team. The midfield duo of Inler and Behrami have to provide cover for the backline or else this might turn into another embarrassing evening for them. The form of Messi and Di Maria should help Argentina register a comfortable victory and progress to the quarter-finals.
Blast From the Past
Argentina and Switzerland faced each other in the World Cup only once before in 1966 when they were drawn in the same group alongside West Germany and Spain. Argentina ran out 2-0 winners in that game.