Argentina have yet to put together a performance worthy of the many stars they've brought with them to Brazil. Despite gaining the full nine points from the group stage, Argentina's play was a disappointment to the vast majority of those who'd tipped them as pre-tournament favorites to win it all. Gone is the free-flowing soccer of CONMEBOL qualification—in its place a style that, at times, has looked labored, struggled to create offensive chances or even string together a series of passes in the final third.
Manager Alejandro Sabella—the Chester A. Arthur of international soccer management—has struggled to impose his tactics, or any tactics for that matter, on a side that seems content to get the ball forward and just let the creators create. The 5-3-2 that Argentina began with against Bosnia was quickly canned in favor of the Lionel Messi-favored 4-3-3. Sabella, a risk-averse company man, seems happy enough to appease Messi so long as the results continue to break his way. Had Messi not been able to find a half-step of space and curl home an absolute wonder-strike to break the deadlock against Iran, the current mood in the Argentinian camp might be entirely different. As it stands, Argentina are a side who are finding ways to win and doing little more.
Fortunately for Argentina their opponent, Switzerland, can only site a last-gasp comeback win against a team that doesn't play well when below 9,000 ft of elevation and a 3-0 undressing of already eliminated Honduras to their World Cup CV.
Fair or not, Switzerland's shocking 5-2 blowout loss to France is what most will judge this side by. In that game, Switzerland imploded after conceding a spectacular Olivier Giroud header. The old cliché goes that a team is always most vulnerable right after scoring. Instead, the Swiss found the French lead doubled in barely enough time for their fans to have downed a round of misery shots. Double schnapps indeed. It's no exaggeration to say that the French could have hung as many as eight or nine goals on the Swiss.
So what are we to make of a match between two underachievers? After all, both Argentina and Switzerland were the seeded teams in their respective groups. Combined, the teams registered 15 of a possible 18 group stage points but did so with only a +4 goal differential in the process.
On paper, you'd have to favor Argentina. They are full of elite talent, particularly in attack. The absence of Sergio Agüero may actually improve Argentina in the short-term. Agüero's likely replacement, PSG's Ezequiel Lavezzi, should provide a reasonably fluid Argentine attack with more natural width—creating even a yard more separation can make a world of difference for someone like Lionel Messi.
For their part, Switzerland possess incredible quality out wide, particularly with wing backs Ricardo Rodríguez and Stephane Lichtsteiner. If Argentina commit numbers forward—and they will—any hope the Swiss have will be in large part on their shoulders.
Against Honduras, the Swiss attacking duo of Josip Drmić and Xherdan Shaqiri were relentless in creating scoring chances with Drmić playing the role of provider on the second and third goals of Shaqiri's hat-trick. In Argentina, the Swiss will face a defense that is several steps up in quality but not exactly what most would describe as staunch. If the Swiss can catch Argentina on the break, they'll be able to generate quality goalscoring chances. That said, Gonzalo Higuaín and Messi have to be licking their lips at the prospect of facing a team that starts Johann Djourou and rostered Philippe Senderos—just ask any Arsenal supporter.
The Swiss will be as prepared as they can be. Manager Ottmar Hitzfeld, whose resume includes several Bundesliga titles and two Champions League trophies, is no stranger to knock-out competitions. Hitzfeld, who plans to retire from management at the end of the tournament, will be hoping his side have a few more games left in the tank.
Argentina know they'll probably never have a better chance to win a World Cup than now—the draw was kind, they've ended up on the "easier" side of the bracket, and the path to the final is clear—but if they continue to play down to their competition's level it'll be a dogfight the whole way. For better or worse, today is the litmus test for Argentina's title credentials. The outcome is less certain than it was a month ago.
Photo Credit: Getty