With 90 minutes gone, the Bela Horizonte stadium was rocked by a cauldron of screaming fans draped in blue in white in the 92nd minute of the match between Argentina and Iran. Lionel Messi sent a rocket into the corner of the net from 20 yards out, losing a couple of defenders in red before rifling in a shot with his sublime left foot. Carlos Queiroz’s side was left ruing a performance that would have left all teams in Group F with a chance at progressing through to the knockout stages.
Moments before, it felt like the Argentine team just weren’t clicking. when another one of Messi’s incisive through passes was unable to be controlled by substitute Rodrigo Palacio. Instead, for all of their collective dynamism, one moment of individual skill was what turned this match on its head, as Argentina won 1-0.
Recently, Spain’s Juan Mata told The Guardian that Spain, who had come under criticism for playing a one dimensional style of football, do in fact have a Plan ‘B’–it’s just that Plan ‘A’ is more satisfying. Today’s Argentinian side features a forward side that play their club football for Spain’s most glamorous clubs–Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, and the four-time World Player of the Year, Lionel Messi, who all seem to be laboring with a little bit of that Spanish stubbornness only to be met with Persian pragmatism. It seemed like Argentina would never find their Plan B until Messi took the game on his shoulders with that shot from outside the box.
With Iran coming into the game firmly aware of the attacking flair and technical prowess that dons this sublime Argentina side, they set up to stifle the middle of the park and restrain Argentina. Yet time and time again, Argentina continued to try to work the ball through the center of the pitch to make their mark only to be met by red shirts. At any given moment, nine shirts stood in the box between the goal and the Argentines in possession, leaving Argentina bereft of ideas, unable to pick the lock and break through the Iranian defense. It almost felt as if Iran was playing a sort of 8-1-1 formation, parking the bus in front of the Argentine attack and releasing quickly through the pace of two dynamic forward players in Ashkan Dejagah and Reza Ghoochannejhad. Surprisingly, it was Iran who had the more compelling of chances, and they leave the Bela Horizonte Stadium feeling like they should be leaving with at least a point.
Argentina, with many players donning Champions League medals or league trophies for their club teams, had expectedly dominated possession; the firm favorites in this match were invited to dictate the terms of play from the start. Yet the Argentinians continually grew more frustrated. An extremely disciplined Iranian side seem content to letting the Argentinians keep the ball, while waiting to stifle the attack in the final third, with an extra man in midfield to pressure the possession and a low defensive line to control the center of the pitch. With two or three defenders on the man in possession, and a total of ten men behind the ball at any given time, Carlos Queiroz’s side were content on absorbing the pressure from a team that sits nearly forty positions above them in FIFA’s world rankings.
That said, Iran’s game felt more pragmatic than negative; they were able to counter well and, with biting, cheap fouls being forced out of the Argentinians, had a few chances through set pieces won by the persistence of Fulham midfielder Dejagah. Furthermore, Iran will feel aggrieved not to have had a penalty in the second half, when Pablo Zabaleta misjudged the amount of time he had to make a clearance and barely got a toe to the ball before bringing down striker Reza in the box.
Iran’s counterattacks kept the Argentine defense honest, and forced some incredible saves from Romero, the biggest chance of which Pejman Montazeri set up for Reza, who stooped to head an excellent delivery straight at Romero.
The only time Argentina looked like combatting the defensive tactics was by taking the ball to the flanks; for most of the first half and the better moments of the second, Argentina’s center backs were determined to get the ball out wide to Zabaleta for the full back to run at Dejagah time and time again. The Manchester City defender continually drew Messi in for support, yet Iran would wait for the ball to leave the wing and swarm the man in the middle. Argentina’s best moments in the first half came from switching flanks. The technical prowess of Di Maria combining with some sublime touches from Aguero dazzled, but continually, the final ball went lacking.
In the first half, Higuain was denied by great goalkeeping when a lovely through ball was placed straight into the path of the Real Madrid striker by Gago. Haghighi came out early and did very well to smother the play before Higuain could make too much of it. Haghighi also phenomenally saved from a great exchange between Higuain and Aguero on 22 minutes, with the Manchester City striker wrapping his right foot around a ball destined for the inside of the net, only for Haghighi to keep the game scoreless by pushing it behind for a corner.
The lack of any breakthrough continued to frustrate Argentina, and as Argentina grew continually more frustrated, Iran grew in confidence. The sixty-seventh minute saw a phenomenal save from Romero, as Iran tested the Argentinian goalkeeper with a brilliant move that left Dejagah with a fine header that was pushed marginally over the bar.
It looked set for a scoreless draw until a moment of individual brilliance from Lionel Messi put Argentina through to the knockout stages and left Iran heartbroken.