- Associated Press - Monday, June 30, 2014

SAO PAULO (AP) - With two World Cup matches already decided in shootouts, Argentina is practicing penalties ahead of its second round game against Switzerland on Tuesday.

Coach Alejandro Sabella on Monday said the Argentines have been shooting spot kicks “in an informal way,” though he added that doing it in practice is very different from doing it in front of tens of thousands of spectators with the team’s World Cup survival at stake.

Brazil beat Chile and Costa Rica defeated Greece in shootouts after the games had finished level after extra time.

Sabella said those matches showed that mental strength and character are crucial to advancing in the World Cup, adding that “a gram of brains weighs more than a kilogram of muscle.”

He’s got a good example of that in Argentina captain Lionel Messi, the diminutive forward who’s been carrying the team on his shoulders in Brazil.

Messi has scored four of Argentina’s six goals, including an injury-time winner in the second match against Iran.

“Messi is playing a great World Cup,” Sabella said. “Obviously he is a decisive player for us.”

Apart from Messi, though, Argentina lacked sparkle in its group-phase matches. Its defense was shaky against Nigeria and its attack faltered against Iran and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Sabella said at times the team has become disjointed, pulled apart by the speed of its own attack.

“Sometimes we get stretched out because we have strikers who are very fast,” Sabella said. “I think in modern football it’s important that teams remain compact, that the distance between defenders and strikers is as short as possible, and that’s what we’re going to try to achieve.”

With a team that’s seen as front-heavy - with stars like Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, and Angel Di Maria in the attack, but a relatively modest defense - Sabella also stressed the need to keep the team balanced. He reached for a basketball metaphor to make his point.

“If you watch an NBA game and one team is attacking the crowd is shouting ‘defense,’ defense, defense. And with football it’s the same: attacking and defending and finding a balance,” Sabella said.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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