Once again, Argentina needed a moment of inspiration from Lionel Messi.
For the second match in soccer’s World Cup in Brazil, two-time champion Argentina struggled with lower-ranked opposition. With last night’s game in injury time, Messi took control. The 91th-minute goal from the four-time World Player of the Year made it 1-0 and allowed thousands of fans in Belo Horizonte’s Estadio Mineirao to celebrate.
Messi cut inside the defense and keeping the ball on his left foot -- just like he had when his goal gave his team its tournament-opening 2-1 win against Bosnia-Herzegovina on June 15 -- placed it beyond the goalkeeper.
“Thanks be to God, the little guy rubbed the lamp in the last minute and we won,” said Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero, who had several second-half saves to ensure Iran -- ranked 38 places below Argentina -- didn’t get an upset.
Argentina is now guaranteed a place in the next round. It will seek to continue the winning streak to secure top position in Group F when it plays Nigeria in Porto Alegre in three days, according to defender Pablo Zabaleta. Iran may still qualify if it beats Bosnia on the same day.
“Obviously we are not performing as we want to perform,” he said after the game. “Sometimes it’s just about the three points.”
Blue and White
More than 30,000 Argentines traveled to the city in southern Brazil, and the stadium was draped in blue and white.
Argentine coach Alejandro Sabella ended an experimental set up of five defenders, which cramped his team in the first half against Bosnia. He restored Gonzalo Higuain in the attack alongside Messi and Sergio Aguero.
The trio found very little space to maneuver as Iran chased every loose ball and defended tightly. Argentina’s 77 percent possession in the match was the second highest in any World Cup game since 1966, according to sports statistician Opta.
“We need space to play well and Iran didn’t give us any,” Messi said. “We can play better but it’s tough when the opponent protects their goal so well.”
During the second half, Argentina’s frustration meant more attackers flooded the opposition half, and the Iranians took advantage with quick counterattacks.
First Reza Ghoochannejhad forced Romero into a diving save with a header following a break led by Masoud Shojaei. Two minutes later, referee Milorad Mazic of Serbia declined to give a penalty when Zabaleta got the ball but also a piece of the attacker with his tackle of Ashkan Dejagah inside the penalty area.
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said Mazic deserved as much credit as Messi for the result.
“Two people made the difference in the game,” he said. “One was Messi for his brilliant strike. The second, who should not have made a difference, was the referee. It was a clear penalty and in a game like this against a team like Argentina, these small details can be crucial.”
Zabaleta said the referee made the right call, saying “it was not very clear to give a penalty.”
Messi had his first run at goal an hour into the game. Picking up the ball in the Iran half, he moved toward the defense before hitting a left-foot shot just wide.
At the other end Romero blocked Haji Safi’s shot wide, and the goalkeeper then denied Ghoochannejhad on another counter attack.
With the clock ticking past the 90th minute, Messi produced his goal. He fired his shot into the top corner from 25 meters (30 yards), sending Iran players onto their haunches.
“He’s the best player in the world and sometimes he makes things like this,” Zabaleta said. “He has the quality to decide a game any time and today was really hard because they defended really well for 90 minutes and then Messi made the difference at the end.”