BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL — Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero was one of the heroes for the Albiceleste on Saturday against Iran. Yet when he addressed the media, all his plaudits went in the direction of his captain. “The little guy rubbed the genie lamp once more,” said Romero in reference to Lionel Messi.
What Romero said was on point as Messi’s two goals in this World Cup were as if they were sent from a different match. Yet once again, the Argentines found themselves in an all too familiar scenario. The squad had trouble creating chances offensively and the defense… well, let’s leave those words for a little later.
Messi’s 91st minute strike brought the house down at the Estadio Mineirão in Belo Horizonte. The same thing goes for his strike against Bosnia-Herzegovina at Estadio Maracanã. That’s great, if you look at it. Your best player shows up in the most important stage of the match, right? In a way, yes. The problem was that he was held at bay for the majority of the match. A few darting runs, but nothing that any journalist would have written about in a positive way should the match have ended scoreless.
For many Argentine fans, it was a chance to breathe again. The match was a perilous experience where the flair and panache of the protagonists did not show was overshadowed by the grit and sacrifice that the supposed sacrificial lamb was not expected to show.
Argentina continue to show the same deficiencies that could prevent them from raising the World Cup trophy on Brazilian soil. The defense continues to be questionable, and I use that term describing them when they are in top form. Saturday was just another prime example of a list that continues to grow longer.
In the second half, Iran threatened as much as Argentina, but the Iranians did so with much lesser numbers, which is even more worrying for Sabella and staff. Many commentators in Argentina and Brazil were saying that had that been later in the tournament against more precise opposition on offense, they would be going home.
“When the ball went in I felt a great deal of joy. Because we qualified for the next round and the roar and celebration was great.”- Lionel Messi
The backline looked battered, anemic at times as they were overpowered by the Iranian counter attacks. Their saving grace was a providential tackle or a mistake by Queiroz’ men. Iran looked like they were coming close to taking the lead, throughout the second half especially.
After the match, Ángel Di María spoke about how hard it was for Argentina to look to create anything when there were 11 men behind the ball. What he did fail to see was the individual and collective imprecision when it came down to moving the ball. It was difficult to find the spaces, no doubt, but there were some individual performances that caused many attacks to be imprecise. The same thing went for Fernando Gago, who was an option for Alejandro Sabella, but throughout the match showed that he was not able to solve the defensive riddle that was put out on the pitch by the former Portugal and Real Madrid boss Carlos Queiroz.
Meanwhile, Javier Mascherano was all by himself in the middle and in this formation, Sabella is showing that this midfield still has some liabilities that it did in 2010. Many can point to the match against Germany and several of the things that happened in that match and there is the potential for disaster there. Mascherano all by himself in the middle with no support from Gago or Di María led to the Iran threats to be so consistent.
Reza Ghoochenijad was a tremendous force for Iran both on the counter and in recovering the ball. He was Iran’s big star in the match for the majority of the encounter. His ability to run at the defense and make them uncomfortable by his lonesome, was quite telling for Argentina.
Finally, Kun Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín showed little at the Mineirão and were absolutely irrelevant throughout the match and were easily taken off the ball as well as their game.
Even Sabella’s subs didn’t work. Rodrigo Palacio as well as Ezequiel Lavezzi weren’t the answer and Argentina’s attack seemed like it was eroding after having gone the entire first half looking to batter Iran’s Alireza Haghighi and making him look like one of the stars of the match.
Could this be Argentina being told that they have to wait until Russia to be vindicated? Or is this fate telling him that he has to grab the tournament by the scruff and win it on his own in order to rightfully crowned as the greatest of all time? Man, I’d love to sound romantic right about now, but reality is sometimes too overwhelming to ignore no matter how hard people want dreams to come true or if Argentina have the spiritual force of the pope behind them.
As Brazilian color commentator Neto said during the telecast on Saturday, “There is no justice in football, there’s only greatness.” Messi’s goal against Iran should be framed in order to serve us as a reminder of that statement. As much as many of us will praise that stroke of genius from a player that virtually neutralized for the overwhelming majority of the match, there are still issues that the team will have to address if they want to assert themselves on the pitch as “contenders”.