Small men bear heavy loads

Small men bear heavy loads
In Messi, they have a player who is in red-hot form. So too is midfielder Angel di Maria, whose probing and passes will supply ammunition for his front men.

When it comes to the knock-out stages of the World Cup, teams look to extraordinary players to stand tall. When Argentina face Switzerland in the round-of-16 clash at the Arena de Sao Paulo today, the two sides will, ironically, be looking to their shortest players to rise above the rest.

Lionel Messi and Xherdan Shaqiri share a lot of similarities besides being just 1.69m tall.

Both rose to prominence as teenagers, both are the top scorers for their teams in Brazil and both represent the beacon of hope placed on a golden generation.

Messi, for all the World Player of the Year accolades and numerous honours at club level, has yet to win the World Cup. In fact, the only international success he has had in Argentina colours was when he won the 2005 World Youth Championship, now called the Under-20 World Cup.

He was part of a team which included no fewer than five members of the current World Cup squad - among them Pablo Zabaleta, Sergio Aguero, Ezequiel Garay and Fernando Gago - and Messi was the best player and top scorer of the tournament.

Many of the same cohort went on to win gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, an event made up mostly of U-23 players.

But they have yet to repeat that kind of success at senior level. The last time Argentina won the Copa America was in 1993.

It has also been over two decades since the Albiceleste last won the World Cup. That was in 1986 when Diego Maradona led them to the title, seven years after he won them their first U-20 World Cup.

Nine years on, Messi, 27, hopes to repeat that unique double, starting with a win against Switzerland today.

With four goals in Brazil so far, thanks to strikes in each of the three group games, Argentina's No. 10 will be closely marked in the clash, leading many to wonder if Argentina can succeed if Messi does not score. The cause will not be helped by an injury to striker partner Aguero.

But with Ezequiel Lavezzi set to step in, Argentina are confident the Paris Saint-Germain forward can shoulder some of the goal-scoring burden.

Said assistant coach Claudio Gugnali: "He's a very powerful player and is in a great moment. He finished his club season very well. He has been asking to be on the pitch since he came (to Brazil). I don't have any doubts that he will know how to take advantage of his opportunities."

Lavezzi has nine goals for his Paris club his season and has shown a willingness to attack down the wings or as a withdrawn striker. He would fit in well with Messi and Gonzalo Higuain in the three-man strike force that Argentina are expected to deploy.

How these three perform will be crucial against the Swiss, who pose an equally potent attack.

Shaqiri, dubbed the Alpine Messi, has three goals in Brazil.

And like Messi, he is the shining star of a very good batch of Swiss players.

In midfielder Granit Xhaka, forward Haris Seferovic and defender Ricardo Rodriguez, they have players who have won at the international level, albeit the Under-17 World Cup in 2009. And although Shaqiri was not part of that 2009 squad, the 22-year-old is seen as the leader of arguably the best Swiss footballing generation in over half a century. Now they hope to do the business on the senior stage.

Their German coach, Ottmar Hitzfeld, believes that the young team - half of the 23 players are 25 and below - can make Switzerland's first quarter-final appearance since they hosted the finals 60 years ago, especially with Shaqiri pulling the strings from behind the attackers.

Said Switzerland striker Admir Mehmedi: "I think Xherdan did his job very well against Honduras, we knew he could play this position. With a playmaker, we're a lot more creative in our attacking game. He can spin around very fast and play deep passes."

Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano said his team would be keeping a close eye on Shaqiri and his colleagues.

"The Swiss are an orderly team who like to play good football and have top players," he said. "Shaqiri and Haris Seferovic are in good form and we're going to have to be careful."

But while Argentina have a plan to keep Switzerland's biggest threat in check, so too the Swiss, as they aim to keep Messi quiet for the first time at this World Cup. Or at least they will try.

"We are preparing just as we do for any other game. However, it's clear that it will be difficult to completely take Messi out of the game." goalkeeper Diego Benaglio said.

"You can see so many videos of Messi where he does something surprising at a decisive moment."

For Switzerland's sake, he will be hoping the other "Messi" surprises and stands tall in Sao Paulo.

marclim@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on July 01, 2014.
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