Messi stays, Howard goes home from World Cup
A moment of Messi inspiration helped lift an unconvincing Argentina to a 1-0 win over Switzerland after extra time in the Round of 16 on Tuesday, creating the goal scored by Angel Di Maria in the 118th minute.
Howard's stunning shot-stopping performance could not stop the Americans falling to a 2-1 extra-time loss against favored Belgium that had a pulsating finale.
The veteran `keeper repelled most of Belgium's 27 shots on target but was finally beaten by Kevin De Bruyne in the 93rd and substitute Romelu Lukaku in the 105th.
"He had an absolutely amazing match tonight and you just have to give him the biggest compliments in the world," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said.
Teenager Julian Green's 107th-minute goal sparked concerted American pressure but they could not find a leveler to force a penalty shootout.
Argentina now faces Belgium in a quarterfinals lineup that is a sweep of the eight group winners. They start Friday with France vs. Germany in the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
Anticipation was soured a little Tuesday by fixing allegations from earlier matches at the World Cup.
Cameroon's football federation said it would investigate after the team's integrity was questioned by a German magazine. Der Spiegel claimed convicted match-fixer Wilson Raj Perumal correctly predicted in online exchanges with a reporter that Cameroon would lose 4-0 to Croatia and a player would be sent off before halftime.
"Yes, I have been told about this but let them do their work on this investigation," FIFA President Sepp Blatter told reporters in Brazil on Tuesday.
Hours later, Perumal's biographers issued a statement on his behalf denying all allegations.
Howard's heroics in goal topped Messi in the doubleheader which closed second round.
After Messi scored in each of Argentina's three group matches, Switzerland almost made good on its promise to shut down the four-time FIFA player of the year.
The Swiss certainly had the best first-half chances in Sao Paulo, created by their own mini-Messi, the equally tiny, powerful and left-footed forward Xherdan Shaqiri.
First, Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero stretched his left foot to block Granit Xhaka's low shot, then stood up to gather a weak chipped shot by Josip Drmic.
"They had two clear chances and after that the match was ours," Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella said.
When Messi threatened, his scything volley skimmed over the Swiss crossbar and a low shot was parried by `keeper Diego Benaglio.
A shootout loomed until Messi broke free of pursuing Swiss defenders. He found Di Maria on the left side of the penalty box for a sweeping left-foot shot beyond Benaglio's dive.
Argentina was then shaken in stoppage time when a close-range header by substitute Blerim Dzemaili hit the base of Romero's right hand post. The rebound struck Dzemaili's knee and went wide.
In Salvador, Howard was the U.S. savior from the first minute in a match of steadily rising tension on a warm, stamina-sapping evening.
A sprawling block to deny Divock Origi opened a duel with the teenage Belgian forward throughout regulation time.
Origi hit the crossbar with a header in the 56th and drew saves from one-on-one chances in the 71st and 85th. Howard saved perhaps his best to keep out a Kevin Mirallas shot in the 76th.
In extra time, De Bruyne took advantage of chaos in the U.S. defense to slide a shot past Howard's dive. That chance was created by Lukaku's fresh burst of energy and the striker -- Howard's teammate at Everton last season -- powered in a second goal that seemed to seal the match.
Yet Green's goal lifted tired legs and Clint Dempsey almost leveled the match when a neat free-kick routine left him eight yards (meters) from goal. Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois smothered Dempsey's shot and sent the Americans out at the last-16 stage for the second straight World Cup.
Meanwhile in Rome, that goal from an Angel rewarded the faith of Pope Francis.
The first pope from Argentina is a noted football fan -- even meeting Messi and FIFA President Sepp Blatter last year -- and the Vatican embraced the spirit of a clash against a country which has for centuries provided the Pontifical Swiss Guard.
A cartoon posted on the Vatican's Twitter showed the pontiff wearing a blue and white Argentina scarf over his white cassock, watching on glumly as beer-swilling soldiers watch the match on television.
Switzerland's defeat ended the career of its veteran German coach, who promised to retire after the tournament.
Hitzfeld's farewell match kicked off hours after his 81-year-old brother, Winfried, died in a hospital in Basel, Switzerland.
"It was a great honor working for Switzerland," said Hitzfeld. "I'm therefore proud to say goodbye to Switzerland with heart full of emotions."
At age 35, Howard might have been playing for the last time at a World Cup, in his third tournament.
"It's heartbreaking," Howard said. "I don't think we could have given it more."
Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press
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