Argentina vs Iran match report World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi conjures up extra magic to save Argentina’s blushes

Stoppage-time heartbreak for Iranians after dogged resistance

The Argentinians were horrified to find that a banner which proclaimed ‘Welcome, to the next world champions’ had been erected at their training base at Vespasiano, a short distance north of here, when they arrived two weeks ago. The well-meaning local Brazilians were instructed take the thing down and yesterday’s extraordinary events underlined why there are fewer certainties than ever in football.

The game which seemed like a form of self-expression for Argentina and its galaxy of talents turned into one of the great containment jobs – and so nearly the greatest – that this tournament has ever seen. For 90 minutes, the best strike force in the competition failed to breach the barrier of a team who had created the match’s outstanding opportunities

Only then did the golden left foot of the player the on whom the Argentine nation’s hopes reside provide a moment of incredible and near impossible theatre. Statistically, it went down as his second 1 v 1 opportunity in the game. In reality it was 1 v 5 when Lionel Messi dropped his shoulder, took the ball to the first man’s left and curled it around two defenders and the goalkeeper.  “Of course, we have a genius who is Messi,” his national team manager Alex Sabela said last night. “Everyone would like to have a Messi. But he is ours.”

In Buenos Aires, the post-mortems which followed an unconvincing win over Bosnia last week will reopen. Diego Maradona left this stadium looking distinctly unimpressed last night and if the European elite have one cause for hope it is that the South American powerhouses look unhealthily dependent, so far, on one individual. Messi is to Argentina what Neymar is to Brazil. Messi, transformed for Argentina since Argentina’s 2011 Copa America, has certainly answered all the old questions about the commitment to his country.

Too much optimism would be premature, though. Argentina did enough in flashes to reveal the threat that resides within. Their moments of sublimity in the sunshine came early, most of them authored by the incredibly sweet touch of Angel de Maria - dragging the ball under his left boot and racing off to drop his shoulder, with a count of four defenders left behind in his wake before the run was stopped.

Why did the goals not come? Messi cited the heat as a factor. His manager Alex Sabella, who professed himself “worried,” said he would look at the defence which is widely seen as a weak point. But the story actually belongs to Iran and the indefatigability Queiroz has imbued them with.

 

The five previous matches Queiroz managed in World Cup finals, for Portugal before Iran, had ended 0-0, 0-0, 0-0, 0-1 and 7-0, against a North Korean side who must be wondered how that happened to them. The awareness and positioning of the Iranians’ two central defenders Amirhossein Sadeghi and Pejman Montazeri – who don’t tend to be stopped in the street beyond Tehran – were integral to what unfolded. Having five holding midfielders also helped. The Queiroz method of dealing with Messi is un sophisticated and entails refusing him the first touch.  “Get in strong and close; don’t foul but be strong and close,” as Patrice Evra, one of his old Manchester United charges once described.  It worked.

Messi certainly sensed this. “The central areas were shut off. [Angel] Di Maria couldn’t create any spaces,” he reflected last night.  Queiroz’s goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi  – dressed as the pantomime villain in all-black strip with gloves to match – also played his part. He leapt and twisted to claw the ball after Higuain’s precise return ball to Sergio Aguero teed up a shot in the penalty area. It was the best move that was manufactured in a first half which delivered Argentina 73 per cent of possession and pitifully little to show for their trouble.

But it was in the second half that Iran deconstructed the old notion of an imperious football team. So completely have the smaller nations mastered a capacity to challenge the elite that Queiroz did not even leave the stadium with expressions of pleasure at a part in the spectacle. He unleashed anger at the Serbian referee for not allowing a penalty at the death and observed that he had thrown on attacking options at the end. “We wanted and needed the win,” he said.

It was some accomplishment for a squad impoverished by international sanctions imposed over its government's uranium-enrichment programme. Masoud Shojaei, of Las Palmas, shook off Messi, found  Montazeri, of UmmSalal, who delivered a low accurate cross for Reza Ghoochannejad, of Charlton Athletic. The goalkeeper Sergio Romero dropped down on it to save unconvincingly.

That was just the start. Mehrdad Pooladi raced ahead of Pablo Zabaleta to meet another impeccable cross from the right by Montarezi. Romero needed all of his athleticism to leap and touch the ball over the bar. Reza Ghoochannejad was put through on goal, with Garay left in his wake. Romero leapt to palm away his shot, despatched as Zabaleta made the challenge which had Queiroz alleging injustice. And then came the Messi moment.

Today is anniversary of the hot afternoon in Mexico City when the Hand of God put paid to a robust defensive display from England.  Many in Argentina reject comparisons with Maradona but is his another of that champion class in the ranks. As Sabella put it last night: “When you have Messi, anything is possible.”

Line-ups:

Argentina (4-3-3): Romero; Zabaleta, Fernandez, Garay, Rojo; Gago, Mascherano, Di Maria (Biglia, 90); Messi, Higuain (Palacio, 77), Aguero (Lavezzi, 77).

Iran (4-2-3-1): A Haghighi; Hosseini, Sadeghi, Montazeri, Pooladi; Timotian, Nekounam; Dejagah (Jahan Bakhsh, 85), Shojaei (Heydari, 77), Haji Safi (R Haghighi), Ghoochannejhad.

Referee: Milorad Mazic (Serbia).

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