Ángel di María
Lionel Messi *(Captain)*
Amir Hossein Sadeghi
What a World Cup this is turning out to be. Even a snatched 1-0 win can have a ring of something quietly sensational about it. In Belo Horizonte Iran produced a stirring performance against an Argentina team of all the attacking talents, at first defending like trench-bound soldiers then coming out in the second half to cause problems of their own down their opponents' vulnerable flanks, not least when Reza Ghoochanejad sprinted on to a long pass after an Argentina corner and almost scored what could have been a sensational winner with three minutes left.
Football can be cruel, though. With the match in stoppage time it was Lionel Messi, after a relatively quite game, who scored the goal that put Argentina through to the last 16, reward for persistence to the last as Messi jinked inside and produced out of his back pocket a sublime left-foot shot into the far corner. As the Estádio Mineirão erupted with blue and white joy, Iran's player's crumpled. They had been disciplined and inventive against an Argentina team that lacked incision against a well-organised defence. Genius, though, does come in handy on these occasions.
Alejandro Sabella had rejigged his starting XI here against the group's notional minnows, fielding the more attacking 4-3-3 formation a group of senior players had advocated, successfully, at half-time in the match against Bosnia-Herzegovina. With Argentina's lineup here came the first suggestion of a concerted shift in method, and also perhaps in influence. There had been some whispered talk leading up to this match of that seductive vice known as Messidependencia, with some fearing this team might become too centred on its No10, soft-pedalling to its detriment those other high-end attacking talents. It is in itself a slightly paradoxical idea. Can you have too much Messi? It sounds a bit like suggesting you might have too much fun, too much sunlight, too much pure sporting talent.
Either way the presence of Sergio Agüero, Messi and Gonzalo Higuaín on the pitch at the same time looked in outline a delicious prospect. As was the atmosphere inside the Estádio Mineirão before kick-off, with a warm, choral wave of Argentinian noise rolling around a stadium that was reupholstered rather than rebuilt; and which has a depth to its stands, a Kop-like noise-funnel that the modern mega-dromes often lack.
Messi started to the right of that 4-3-3, from where he linked nicely with Pablo Zabaleta in the opening minutes, before popping up on the left to kill with a single touch Fernando Gago's long pass. The key axis in this team is perhaps the Messi-Gago funnel, a relationship honed over shared international adolescence. Gago is a lovely passer, with a dreamy right foot that often seeks Messi first, although it was Higuaín who was put through on goal after 13 minutes by a curled Gago pass from the right. Alireza Haghighi saved bravely at his feet.
In Carlos Queiroz Iran have a defensive mastermind to savour this kind of match, a coach who is happiest seeing opposition teams grind though the gears, snagged on his high-grade defensive spike strips. The approach was clear: get to Messi, Ángel Di María and Agüero quickly, don't allow them to gain top speed in possession. Iran were cut open on 21 minutes by a more traditional route, Higuaín laying the ball off with his back to goal for Agüero, whose curling shot was palmed away. Moments later Marcos Rojo headed just wide from a corner. But already Argentina looked a little fretful against these resilient, technically precise Iranians.
With half an hour gone the noise was all Iranian, the red, green and white flags fluttering as that thick red line continued to smother. Ezekiel Garay nodded over from two yards from Messi's free-kick and again an Argentinian held his head in his hands. A goalless first half had been a triumph, not as it turned out, for Argentina's golden flea, but for Queiroz's pincer-like squeeze.
Sabella has been much concerned with Argentina's weakness on the flanks to the counterattack, perhaps a little too much here as, despite 73% possession in the first half, Zabaleta and Rojo failed to stretch a deep Iranian defence out wide. There was evidence of change early in the second half as Rojo and Zabaleta got forward and the game grudgingly opened up. On the hour Messi picked up the ball in space between Iran's lines for the first time, shooting just wide with his left foot. But with that mollusc-like midfield forward a little, and with Haghighi – dressed in Yashin-like if slightly sweaty all-black – snuffing out any danger, Iran were suddenly dominant.
Romero produced a fingertip save from Ashkan Dejagah's thrilling header from Pejman Montazeri's cross, and by now the Iranian fans were jumping in Belo Horizonte, gripped by a performance that had begun in neutral but that climbed through the gears to push this team of champions back.
Moments later Dejagah was convinced he should have had a penalty after going down in a challenge with Zabaleta. Replays suggested Zabaleta had just got a fine saving touch on the ball first.
For Argentina that dreamy front three seemed to have congealed in the heat in the second half. Cue a double substitution, with Ezequiel Lavezzi on for Agüero and Rodrigo Palacio for Higuaín. It was a galvanising move as Lavezzi's energy and craft on the right flank stretched Iran, opening space for Rojo – who was perhaps Argentina's best player here – to have a shot from 25 yards. Then came that thrilling final act.
For long periods Argentina had been stifled by a fine counterpunching opposition, but it would be a little hasty to fret too much about them after this performance. Messidependencia may well be a dangerous thing – but for whom, friend or foe, is open to question. Argentina's opponents in the last 16 will still be wary. It took a full hit-and-miss 90 minutes, but what Messi produced at the end here was a moment of pure decisive quality.