Sao Paulo: Lionel Messi is often the smallest player on the field. But it is clear that he possesses his own gravitational pull. (Also read: Messi Tells Argentina to Make Most of 'Luck')
Just look at how opposing players - entire teams - drift toward him, one after another, and impulsively flinch at his every step and feint. Look at how magnetically he draws a crowd's collective gaze, how hushed with expectation a building can become whenever he makes a run. Look at how quickly the ball zips its way back to his feet whenever his team feels the slightest bit of anxiety.
Messi's stature, already large, has grown considerably in this World Cup, and it grew somehow bigger still Tuesday as he inspired Argentina to a 1-0 overtime victory over Switzerland at Arena Corinthians. (Highlights)
As the game dragged on, scoreless, it only felt more certain that Messi would crack it open. It was Angel di Maria who scored the game's only goal, in the 118th minute, when a penalty shootout seemed a sure thing. But it was Messi who served Di Maria the ball on a platter after destabilizing the entire Swiss defense with a breathtaking dribbling solo run through the middle of the field.
"We had luck on our side," Messi said, sounding relieved. "We have to take advantage of that and move on."
Argentina moves on to the quarterfinal round, staying alive in this World Cup almost entirely thanks to Messi's individual brilliance, and will face Belgium, a 2-1 winner over the United States.
Messi scored four goals in the group stage, often summoning chances from seemingly nothing to save his team. His output, in truth, has masked Argentina's failure to be the juggernaut its roster suggests it should be.
There is a sense, then, that coach Alejandro Sabella may be misusing the immense talent at his disposal, that at some point soon in this tournament, a strong team will expose the team's various deficiencies. But there is a sense, too, that since it has Messi, it may not matter.
"We know that Messi in one second can decide a match," Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld said. "He has all the qualities to do that."
Hitzfeld's team defended admirably, setting up an impenetrable pyramid in front of its goal to nullify the 61 percent possession advantage that Argentina enjoyed in the game, and it seemed as if the Swiss could steal a victory through a penalty shootout. But Messi put those efforts to waste.
With only minutes left in the game, Messi corralled a sharp pass on a half-turn near the center circle and began a direct sprint toward the Switzerland goal. From the left appeared a Swiss player with a lunging slide tackle, out to scythe ball or body. But it missed on both, as Messi hopped over unharmed, never slowing his stride.
Three other Argentina attackers fanned out around the penalty area, but all eyes remained on Messi as he glided forward at top speed. Messi drew six Switzerland players around him before slipping the ball, at the last moment, to his right and into the path of Di Maria, who needed only to slide the ball along the grass and inside the far post to finish the play.
"He was in a very advantageous position, and obviously a player like Messi receiving a ball in an advantageous position can cause a lot of harm," Sabella said. "And there it was."
Two minutes after the goal, Blerim Dzemaili of Switzerland rose unmarked and knocked a header directly off the left post.
Providing double heartbreak, the ball ricocheted back off the metal and hit Dzemaili's body again as he was falling to the ground, but it rolled wide of the goal.
It could have been a deserved equalizer, as Switzerland had the better chances through much of the game.
In the 28th minute, Granit Xhaka directed a low, hard shot from outside the penalty box through traffic that required a left-footed save from goalkeeper Sergio Romero, who seemed not to have a great view of it. Eleven minutes later, Josip Drmic was alone against Romero after sprinting onto a through ball. But he tried a soft chip shot - an overly clever choice, in hindsight - and Romero caught the ball at shoulder height.
The precipitous and towering stands at Arena Corinthians pulsated with energy after each chance. The Argentina fans had brought balloons and were bouncing as they sang, turning entire sections of the stadium into rippling sheets of sky blue and white. But even though the Swiss fans were far outnumbered, they had thousands of Brazil supporters on their side for the day, giving the stadium a fractured vibe.
The local fans seemed to be the only ones having fun as the game remained deadlocked, shouting "Ole;" after every Switzerland pass, long into extra time.
"At times I was nervous because we couldn't score a goal, and any mistake could have knocked us out of the World Cup," Messi said. "When you are here, you don't have an easy opponent." But Messi would eventually exert his sway on the game, taking another defensive game plan devoted entirely to him and ripping it to shreds.
© 2014 New York Times News Service