Scorers: Argentina; Lionel Messi 90
Lionel Messi did it again for Argentina yesterday, breaking Iran’s hearts with a sublime stoppage-time winner as the two-time champions limped into the last 16 of the World Cup with a game to spare – just as the Group F outsiders were on the verge of making history after the performance of their lives.
With seconds left, Messi took the ball from Pablo Zabaleta and showed great composure to curl a shot perfectly out of the reach of Alireza Haghighi in the Iran goal and into the corner of the net.
Football is a cruel game, as we all know, and no neutral could fail to feel for the Iranian players who slumped to the ground in utter dejection as their fans, although outnumbered by the blue and white hordes, celebrated a moral victory.
Sixteen years ago to the day, Iran famously beat the United States in one of the most politically-charged matches in World Cup history. The two countries had no diplomatic relations but the teams tried to defuse some of the tension surrounding the game with an exchange of gifts before kick-off.
No presents could be handed to Argentina if Iran wanted to secure another piece of footballing folklore. Every blocked tackle, every clearance by Carlos Queiroz’s team was cheered to the rafters.
Argentina, as expected, reverted to their customary 4-3-3 formation favoured by Messi who had made the point in no uncertain terms in the build-up to kick-off, prompting reports of an unsavoury rift between the little maestro and coach Alejandro Sabello which the latter repeatedly attempted to play down at a packed press conference on Friday.
Sabello nevertheless made two changes to the side that started so slugglishly in the 2-1 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina. Gonzalo Higuain supported Messi and Fernando Gago was brought in alongside Javier Mascherano, winning his 100th cap, and Angel Di Maria in midfield.
Argentina dominated possession from the start but had to wait until midway through the first half for their first serious effort on goal, Sergio Aguero’s curler bringing a brilliant save from Haghighi.
Having picked up a point against Nigeria, Iran, ranked 43rd in the world, looked anything but overawed as they resolutely kept Argentina out. Economic and political outcasts despite a recent improvement in relations with the west, they were determined to enjoy the biggest game of their lives in what is their fourth appearance in the finals.
Queiroz, who leaves after the tournament because of lack of government funding, delivered non-stop instructions to his team as they disrupted the flow of their illustrious opponents.
Argentina, who had lost only one of their previous 13 group games in the World Cup, were getting closer. But still they couldn’t find a way through and so nearly conceded on the stroke of half time. Jalal Hosseinim, who had fluffed one chance, had an even better one, dragging two Argentines out of position but failing to make his bullet header count.
The half-time whistle was greeted with rapturous applause by the Iranian fans – and no doubt 76 million people back home. And it so nearly got even better. As Argentina pushed forward, they lost possession in midfield and in a lightning break down the right, lone striker Reza Ghoochannejhad headed hard and firm but Sergio Romero spread himself to keep it out. Moments later, the underdogs then had a decent claim for a penalty waved away as Fulham’s Ashkan Dejagah went down under a challenge from Zabaleta.
Knowing they could qualify with three draws, Iran were in no mood to give ground and Argentina were simply not doing enough in the final third and were starting to panic at the back as Garay lashed the ball over his own bar.
It was in Belo Horizonte that one of the World Cup’s great upsets took place when England were beaten by USA in 1950. Could Iran pull off another shock? Their confidence growing with every passing minute, Dejagah came within a whisker of giving his side a shock lead as Romero was forced into another flying fingertip save.
Sabella made a double substitution to try to break Iran’s spirit but had to thank his goalkeeper, yet again, for another brilliant stop from Ghoochannejhad.
Argentina’s big-game individuals hadn’t really turned up – until you-know-who came to the rescue with his second goal of the tournament, just as he did against the Bosnians. It had taken the best player on the planet to separate the sides with his eighth goal in seven games for his country. No consolation for the desperately unfortunate Iranians.
Argentina: Romero; Zabaleta Garay, Fernandez, Rojo; Gago, Masherano, Di Maria; Messi, Higuain (Palacio, 77), Aguero (Lavessi, 77).
Iran: Haghighi; Hosseini, Sadeghi, Montazeri, Pooladi; Dejagah, Timotian, Shojaei (Heydari, 77), Nkounam, Safi; Ghoochannejhad.
Referee: Milorad Mazic (Serbia). Attendance: 57,698.