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Argentina – and Lionel Messi – ready to shift up a gear for Switzerland

Tuesday, July 01, 2014 by Guardian.co.uk

• Manager Alejandro Sabella says mistakes must be eliminated
• ‘We are in good spirits and very positive, but this is different’

Argentina's Lionel Messi has already cast a daintily skilled shadow over the last 16 match with Switzerland

Like so many of the tournament heavyweights at this World Cup, Argentina have so far performed in a peculiar half-light: sublime at times in attack, oddly porous in midfield and defence at others.

In many ways Tuesday’s last-16 opponents, Switzerland, provide a tessellation of strengths and weaknesses, a team who in their present incarnation also include a scattering of high-end talent who have tended to defy the Swiss stereotype of game but limited solidity.

Switzerland have also been far from impenetrable at this World Cup but they are dangerous opponents too, as Argentina’s manager, Alejandro Sabella, acknowledged at his final pre-match press conference at the Arena Corinthians. This is a moment for Argentina to shift up a gear.

'The team is in good spirits and very positive but this is a different phase,' Sabella said. 'During first phase you can make a mistake and still recover. Here it is much more difficult. We cannot go back, and mistakes are not acceptable at this stage of a World Cup.'

As ever with Argentina, Lionel Messi casts a daintily skilled shadow over this match and Sabella was predictably unstinting in his praise for Argentina’s outstanding player, although he wisely stopped short of accepting a comparison to Diego Maradona’s feats at Mexico 86.

'Messi is playing an amazing World Cup; that is what everyone expected,' Sabella said. 'He expected it, so did his colleagues, and so did all of Argentina in general. We are happy for him and the team. He is a very important player for us. Maradona was a very important player at that time and Messi is important as well.'

The standard comparison with Neymar was skirted around with similar diplomacy at a time when sporting relations between the two nations are beginning to thrum up towards Defcon One. “I think both players are amazing. Messi is the best in the world, and Neymar is a great player. With players like those, the team depends on them. It is normal. Argentina depend on Messi, Brazil on Neymar, it is normal.”

The possibility of a dream South American clásico final is a dawning subplot of this tournament, although Sabella would not be drawn – unlike his fellow Argentinian Jorge Sampaoli before Chile’s defeat in Belo Horizonte – on the obvious allure of winning on Brazilian soil.

'First of all, winning a World Cup is a huge motivation. We haven’t won a World Cup since 1986. It is very difficult to win a competition like this so this is our main motivation. Anything else is just something that could be misinterpreted so I’d rather say nothing.'

For now, Argentina’s manager was happy to admit his players had been practising penalties (“it is always different in a match”). He will, though, keep the identity of his team secret until the last moment, despite some suggestion from their training sessions that he may switch to the 4-4-1-1 used in some early qualification matches. “Even when we go to sleep I’ll have my doubts,” Sabella said.

The Switzerland manager, Ottmar Hitzfeld, was equally cryptic on the eve of a game that could be the last of his gilded managerial career, given that he has announced his intention to retire from all football after the tournament.

Asked how he intended to stop Messi from providing the same decisive influence he has in Argentina’s past three group matches, Hitzfeld – who has a little experience in dealing with high-level talent – was respectful but unmoved. “Any defence would have problems facing Messi and problems are there to be solved,” he said. “How to stop Messi? Well, I will show you how we do it tomorrow.”

There are not many managers in world football who could make such a statement so boldly, but the prospect of Hitzfeld, a double Champions League winner with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, constructing a tactical plan to constrict the world’s best attacker is an intriguing addition to a finely balanced match. Switzerland’s manager even allowed himself a small laugh when it was put to him that his 30-year career could be over in 24 hours,

'I always prepare so that we can continue. I’m certainly looking forward to this huge challenge. I don’t think it’s going to be my last match.'

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