In today’s World Cup undercard — so much as any match featuring Lionel Messi can be an undercard — it’s Argentina taking on Switzerland. So far, South American teams are 6-2-1 versus Europe, however one of the two losses came via Switzerland when it defeated Ecuador with a last-second goal.
Argentina: Interested in a somewhat fluky soccer stat? In the group stage, Javier Mascherano finished with the most passes completed, connecting on 278-of-311 attempts. For comparison, Andrea Pirlo went 249-of-276 with Italy. Both are roughly at the same percentage and we all collectively fawn over Pirlo and think Mascherano and the rest of Argentina, save Messi, were terrible. Realistically, Mascherano’s high passing volume shows how much of the ball Argentina had during the group stage, where it still failed to impress, winning all three games by one-goal margins.
Fortunately Argentina has Messi — scorer of four of their goals and the only goals from open play — to bail them out vs. Iran and then score twice in the first half vs. Nigeria. Otherwise, Argentina has as a whole looked less than impressive. When you have Messi, you can look unimpressive and still win matches. If Argentina gets it going in the knockout rounds nobody is going to remember its group stage games.
Argentina will look a little different with Manchester City’s Kun Aguero ruled out for the reminder of the tournament, meaning Ezequiel Lavezzi should slide into the starting lineup perhaps creating more balance in the team on the left wing.
Completely unrelated, but if you squint Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella kind of looks like an older Karl Pilkington.
Switzerland: Is it too early (or too late?) to jump on the Switzerland 2018 darkhorse train? Xherdan Shaqiri, Josep Drmic, Ricardo Rodriguez and Granit Xhaka are all 22 or younger. If it wasn’t for the presence of Arsenal rejects Philippe Senderos and Johan Djourou in the center of defense this is the kind of team that could spring a surprise.
Outlook: In the first six Round of 16 games, Colombia was the only side to stroll to an easy victory and that came against a Luis Suarez-less Uruguay. Argentina probably comes out on top here, although it’s defensive pairing of Federico Fernandez and Ezequiel Garay has been all over the map and the Swiss have the pace and technical ability to cause problems on the break. Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, in potentially his final match on the sidelines after a storied career, should come up with a strong plan — but even that might not be enough to stop Messi. … Argentina 3, Switzerland 1.