Argentina vs Iran: Little man Lionel Messi makes a big difference

The master does not move much, but enough to win games

Belo Horizonte

At the very least, he justifies all the debate, all the fuss about him. He also wins matches, and may yet go a long way to deciding the destination of this World Cup trophy.

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Lionel Messi seized this tournament in the most assertive and symbolic manner possible. Just when  his team needed him, and  after a largely poor display, he came up with a last-minute moment of glory.

The perfect No 10 curled in a superb stoppage-time strike from outside the box to beat a defiant and supremely brave Iranian team.

That Diego Maradona was watching only added another dimension.

A goal like this may yet become one of the defining images of this World Cup.

One of the enduring images of the first half was Messi moving back towards the halfway line, picking up the ball and seeing all 11 Iranian players in front of him. That is a situation not too frequent for a forward who plays so high up the pitch.

 

One other enduring image, however, was Messi strolling around the opposition half with very little urgency. That is becoming very frequent.

In that regard, the Argentine play-maker is no longer quite the sonic blur of energy he used to be when Barça were at their peak between 2009 and 2011.

There is a much greater languidness to his game. Some would say laziness. At the end of Barça’s disappointing  2013-14 season, his low mileage stats became an increasing topic of debate. Similarly, it has been argued around Camp Nou that this is all a further consequence of the overbearing influence and ego Messi is developing. It is something that has come under further scrutiny in the last week, as debate has grown about whose decision it exactly was to change formation back to 4-3-3.

The difference is that on the occasions when he decides to do something Messi still tends to show why exactly he may have developed that ego. The eventual goal proved that.

He can go from a heavy afternoon to a lightning storm in an instant. The burst of acceleration remains devastating. The touch is still immaculate.

Messi conjures up magic to save Argentina's blushes

His first action of note in the game displayed all of that. That it came as late as the 18th minute showed his lack of rigour, but the eventual move was marvellous. Picking up from Angel Di Maria’s driving run, Messi swiftly turned and released Gonzalo Higuain. One pass opened up the entire Iranian defence, only for the striker’s poor touch to let them off the hook.

Unfortunately for Argentina, Iran began to ensure such space was at a premium. Messi also found himself increasingly pressurised in the moments he began to move.

Andranik Timotian twice took him down, Javad Nekounam bundled him over when he was through. At the final whistle, the Iranian captain actually gestured that they should swap shirts after the game, but that should perhaps not be considered too craven a show of respect. It certainly didn’t come across in the Asian side’s robust play.

It was causing conspicuous frustration. By that point, Messi was definitely reflecting his team: some nice touches and a suggestion that it could get better, but the feeling that they were not yet fully on it; that a hesitation or perhaps complacency remained.

He did pick up the pace with one brilliant run just before half-time, only to place the ball just wide, but then went on another long stretch without doing anything other than delivering free-kicks. One in the 74th minute, at least, almost curled inside the post.

He eventually found that target, and in such a thrilling way. It all came together.

Messi yet again delivered. He didn’t dominate this game but he is still becoming the dominant player of this World Cup.

Messi didn’t move much. He moved enough.

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