Sao Paulo, Brazil (SportsNetwork.com) - Angel Di Maria scored late in the second period of extra time on Tuesday as Argentina escaped a major scare and advanced to the quarterfinals with a 1-0 victory over Switzerland at the Arena de Sao Paulo.
Pegged as a potential favorite to win the tournament at the outset, Argentina did little to solidify those praises as their group-stage performances left plenty to be desired, despite three victories.
Tuesday's clash continued the trend of less-than-stellar performances, but in the end it was Real Madrid man Di Maria's strike in the 118th minute, off an assist from Lionel Messi, that sent Alejandro Sabella's team through, despite a stout defensive performance from the Swiss.
Switzerland had a golden chance to bury a late equalizer in stoppage time as substitute Blerim Dzemaili got his head on a cross from Bayern Munich man Xherdan Shaqiri, but the strike hit the left post, came off Dzemaili and rolled out of play.
Argentina have now won six of their seven World Cup matches that have gone to extra time, while Switzerland has not won a knockout round World Cup match since 1938.
The result sets up a quarterfinal match with the winner of Tuesday's other contest between the United States and Belgium on Saturday.
"It was an even game in the first half, with just two or three chances, but I think we were by far the better side in the second half. We deserved the win, but the ideal thing would have been to have got the job done in normal time," Sabella said. "It goes without saying that winning is the most important thing and the only thing that really matters. As a coach you have to do things to make winning easier -- you have to look for the right approach, strategy and players. Apart from the odd lapse in concentration here and there, I think the team played well. We were up against a very awkward side, and we probed down the right and probed down the left. I'd like to congratulate my players on their great performance, though there are some areas where we need to improve."
Through three group-stage games, Sabella's side has absorbed some criticism for being overly reliant on Messi, and it proved true early on as Switzerland grabbed a foothold in the match by limiting the space for the diminutive forward through the opening 25 minutes.
The Swiss created their first great chance in the 28th minute as Shaqiri raced to the end line and found Granit Xhaka, who let a strike rip from the top of the box, but Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero made the stop.
Six minutes before the intermission Switzerland looked primed to take the lead when striker Josip Drmic went in alone on Romero, but he seemed to be caught in two minds and scuffed his chip attempt, making the save routine for Romero.
Di Maria answered with a solid strike on target just a minute later, but it was straight at Swiss goalkeeper Diego Benaglio.
Argentina slowly seized control of the second half and had a great chance to break the deadlock in the 62nd minute when Napoli man Gonzalo Higuain got his head on a Marcos Rojo cross, but Benaglio did well to tip it over the crossbar.
Largely quiet in the first half, Messi got into the game with his first strike on goal in the 68th minute that was just over the bar, and the Barcelona man created another chance 15 minutes from time when he whipped a well-placed free kick right on the head of Rodrigo Palacio, but it went wide of the left post.
Switzerland dropped deeper into a defensive shape as the second half wore on, but picked its spots to get forward and had a chance to steal it late in regulation stoppage time as an in-swinging free kick from the left side of the pitch by Gokhan Inler landed on the head of defender Fabian Schar, but it flew over the bar, sending the match to extra time.
The first period of extra time saw both sides squander chances, but Argentina finally found the winner with just two minutes to spare before a penalty shootout.
Messi got the play started as he collected a loose ball in midfield following a turnover by Stephan Lichtsteiner and set sail down the middle of the park on the counter-attack. Messi got to the top of the box and laid it off to Di Maria on the right side and the Real Madrid forward slotted it into the bottom left corner, leaving Benaglio with little chance for a save.
Switzerland was unlucky not to find an equalizer after the ball bounced off the post and Dzemaili, but it had one final chance in stoppage time as Shaqiri won a free kick right on the edge of the penalty area in the center of the pitch.
But the Bayern Munich man's attempt hit the wall and referee Jonas Eriksson brought an end to proceedings moments later, sending Argentina to the last eight.
"We played the game we had to play, but you can see for yourself what Argentina can do when they have space. If we'd gone out and attacked them, then maybe they would have scored more goals than France did," Swiss coach Ottmar Hitzfeld said. "The idea was to stop (Lionel) Messi by putting three or four players on him, but when you're up against a team like that you can't just concentrate on one player, as (Angel) Di Maria showed. It took a great finish to beat (Diego) Benaglio today. I'd like to congratulate my players for the way they reacted at the end. Today Switzerland earned the recognition of many people around the world and we can walk away with our heads held high."