KEIR RADNEDGE in BELO HORIZONTE – Gp F: Argentina 1, Iran 0
—- Leo Messi, match-winner against Bosnia, repeated the conjuring trick against with minutes left to underfasten a superbly disciplined holding operation by the Iranians and keep Argentina’s World Cup show on the trail – just.
Messi, stifled earlier by his own standards and by the busy Iranian defenders, found a sliver of space and time in the inside right position. Deftly, characteristically, his left-foot fast-curled a decisive shot beyond the stretching right hand of Iran keeper Alireza Haghighi. That was his eighth goal in his last seven internationals and also, by the way, secured Argentina’s second round place.
It was more, really, than Argentina deserved. In the second half not only did Iran create the better chances but even had a worthy penalty appeal rejected.
But to boast a giant talent such as Messi is almost like an unfair advantage, like having 12 players on the pitch. He is the last trump card left in the hand and, not just any trump card, but the ace.
He was unable to prove it in 2006; unable to prove in 2010. But this time the fate of the World Cup is at his mercy. Only the (comparative) feet of clay around him can deny him.
Argentina’s fans know it. They refused to leave the Mineirao at the final whistle, waiting in noisy delight for a replay of The Goal to come up on the giant screens. Hundreds removed their shirts and waved them in an act of worship.
Messi was king of what had been, atmospherically, a perfect South American World Cup occasion with the vast majority of the singing, chanting, cheering crowd in the blue and white of Argentina, interspersed with pockets of Brazilian yellow and one solid phalax of red, white and green where the Iran fans enjoyed whatever the game would bring.
Precisely 16 years ago on this day Iran had beaten the United States 2-1 in the dramatic World Cup tie amidst the fall-out from the hostage crisis.
The odds on an anniversary victory were always long against an Argentinian side whose World Cup prospects had gained in ratings after host Brazil’s somewhat stumbling start.
Carlos Queiroz, the Iran coach, had set up his side with the sole ambition of holding the goalless draw with which they began. Reza Ghoochannejad was a lone, academic striker. Mostly the attacking effort came from Argentina and its intensity grew steadily the longer the match progressed.
Keeper Haghighi foiled Gonzalo Higuain, put through by Fernando Gago, then leaped acrobatically to his left to palm away a cross-shot from Sergio Aguero. Two minutes later, exactly midway through the half, and leftback Marcos Rojo loped into the penalty box but miscued a header to a left-wing corner.
Thus far Messi had contributed the occasional touch without demonstrating any particular impatience. Argentina, seemingly, accepted that it could be a long day in the sun before the Iranian concentration began to waver.
The debate within the Argentina camp about tactics had been won this time by the Messi faction. But the starting inclusion of Gago in midfield and Higuain up front brought little by way of opportunities.
Argentina thus had to rely more and more on the free kicks generated by Iran’s repetitious, rhythm-breaking fouls.
Messi tripped in front of the penalty box, swirling his free kick wide of wall and goal. Next, with a free kick wide on the left, Messi’s cross was headed wastefully over by the advancing Ezequiel Garay.
Second half, same story in terms of Argentina pressing. But the best chance so far in the entire match was created by Iran. Massoud Shojaei whipped the ball up the right to Pejman Montazeri whose right-wing cross behind the Argentinian defence offered Ghoochannejad a free header from eight yards out. He could have put it anywhere but chose to pop it directly at keeper Romero who was sharp enough to make a clean save.
Remarkably, Iran might then also have been awarded a penalty. Askhan Dejagah scampered up the left and claimed a penalty in vain after Pedro Zabaleta took man and ball.
Ironically the danger for Iran was that they might be tempted to believe in their attacking potential and lose their discipline. Hence Messi suddenly found himself with a rare channel of space opening. He ran directly for goal, from midield, only to put his first clear-opening shot wide of Haghighi’s right-hand post.
Then, with stoppage time arriving, Messi waved his magic wand.