Lionel Messi curled a stunning 91st-minute winner to send Argentina through to the World Cup knockout stage and rob the excellent Iran of a deserved point.
Iran spent much of the first half under pressure but more than once threatened to inflict what would have been a huge upset.
Argentina’s celebrations at the final whistle were wild and prolonged, while the sight of coach Alejandro Sabella embracing Messi at the tunnel gave an indication of what this meant to the two-time champions.
The build-up was dominated by talk of a rift between Messi and Sabella, the captain having expressed his displeasure at the 5-3-2 formation used in the first half againstBosnia-Hercegovina when Messi also scored the decisive goal.
Sabella duly reverted to the Barcelona forward’s preferred 4-3-3 and was rewarded by his star man at the last.
Iran looked devastated at the end but must take immense confidence from a performance that combined defensive resilience with attacking adventure – and from the knowledge they could still qualify.
Carlos Queiroz’s men actually created the first meaningful chance when Jala Hosseini headed wide from Ashkan Dejagah’s free-kick, although Argentina then assumed control.
Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago provided a solid base for Angel Di Maria and full-backs Pablo Zabaleta and Marcos Rojo to support Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero.
Iran goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi displayed superb reflexes to foil Higuain and save one-handed from Aguero. Rojo then headed narrowly wide, Messi was off target with a free-kick and Ezequiel Garay nodded inches over the bar. The Iran fans celebrated every reprieve like a goal.
“Lionel Messi is the difference in so many games and he’s done it again. You know what he’s going to do, take a step and curl it, but there’s nothing the magnificent Iranians can do. It is just world class.”
Argentina were meeting a wall of resistance every time they attacked but Iran’s impressive defending ought to have been no surprise – they kept more clean sheets in qualifying than any team at the tournament. And when not thwarting the South Americans’ forwards, Queiroz’s team again came close to a goal of their own with another Hosseini header.
Iran’s preparations for the competition had been hampered by political sanctions that affected their funding and ability to organise friendlies, but they looked fully prepared and again came close to taking a shock lead through Reza Ghoochannejhad.
Masoud Shojaei surged forward and fed Pejman Montazeri to cross for the Charlton Athletic striker, who would have scored had his header been aimed anywhere other than straight at Argentine keeper Sergio Romero.
But the chance served to further bolster Iran’s self-belief and after Dejagah had a strong penalty claim rejected by referee Milorad Mazic, the Fulham man was thwarted by Romero’s fingertips as he met another Montazeri cross with a powerful header.
Messi worked hard to swing the momentum back in Argentina’s favour, slotting wide after a quick break and sending a free-kick into the side-netting, while Sabella introduced Rodrigo Palacio and Ezequiel Lavezzi in place of Aguero and Higuain as his side pushed hard for a winner.
Still chances came for Iran, however, Ghoochannejhad nearly stealing the win, only for Romero to make a diving stop – and that miss proved costly when captain Messi stepped up with a wonderful finish into the far corner to send Argentina through with a game to spare and keep them on course for a first World Cup since 1986.
Before the start of this World Cup not many Iran fans imagined that going into the third and final round of the group stage Iran would still have chance to fight for a spot in the Round of 16.
Yet, despite Saturday’s heartbreaking 1-0 defeat against Argentina, Team Melli still has a fair chance to go beyond the group stage in a World Cup tournament that has turned out to be anything but predictable.
Once the initial disappointment of this difficult defeat has passed, most Team Melli fans will come to recognize and appreciate their team’s inspired performance for what it was.
To put it in perspective consider these facts: the Argentina team that took the field against Team Melli included four of the best attacking players in the game today.
Of the four, Lionel Messi has the top total annual earnings of 64.7 million dollars, plus Sergio Aguero with 23.3 million dollars are respectively the second and fifth top earners in this World Cup according to Forbes magazine. That is more than triple the total annual budget of Iranian football federation.
Furthermore, Argentina’s squad included seven or more players who have won major trophies with top European clubs.
And finally, Iran came to this World Cup as one of the lowest ranked teams in the tournament while Argentina are one of the early favorites to go all the way.
Many football purists criticised coach Carlos Queiroz’s defensive approach against African champions Nigeria in the first match of Group F. However, today we saw a different side to his team. They did put numbers behind the ball for most of the first half, but in the second half they took advantage of a frustrated Argentina and created a few dangerous opportunities of their own.
Sergio Romero, the Argentina goalkeeper, was forced to make four saves during the match (as compared to eight by his Iranian counterpart), and one of them had to be a top class acrobatic fingertip save. Queiroz may not have the luxury of many big names on his roster, but he has somehow managed to drill a ton of self-belief in his players and extract every ounce of performance he possibly can out of them.
The boys, for their part, have played their hearts out in more than 180 minutes of football at the highest stage. Against Argentina every single Team Melli starter, including the three who were substituted out late in the game, ran over 9 kilometers. Lone striker Reza Ghoochannejhad ran over 11 kilometers as did 33 year old midfielder and captain Javad Nekounam. Midfielder Andranik Teymourian who ran over 10 km had a match high 48 sprints followed by Ghoochannejhad who had 44.
Unfortunately, from Team Melli’s perspective, the Bosnia-Herzegovina and Nigeria match ended with the worst possible result. The narrow 1-0 Nigerian victory means that Iran will not only have to win their final match against Bosnia, but also hope for a solid Argentine victory if they are to go through to the next round.
It is safe to assume that neither Argentina nor Nigeria will settle for a draw which would send both of them through at the expense of Iran, but who could blame them if they did exactly that?
It will be very interesting to see if Carlos Queiroz can manage to motivate his men for their last group match after such a deflating defeat. But regardless of what happens against Bosnia on June 25, it is a sure bet that the team will get a warm reception from the fans back home upon their return.
While the majority of Iranian football fans are purists who enjoy and appreciate free flowing and attacking football, they also recognize and value hard work and team effort even if it does not produce the beautiful football that they all love. Team Melli game to this tournament as overwhelming underdogs, but they have already outlasted two former world champions and given their fans another chance to dream of possibilities.
Maradona’s a curse! El Diego leaves early… Lionel Messi scores Argentina winner v Iran!
Saturday, June 21st, 2014
After his disastrous reign as coach of Argentina at the last World Cup, the evidence suggesting Diego Maradona is now a jinx on the country he famously led to World Cup glory in 1986 is overwhelming!
Diego Maradona has made headlines across the globe after he was unable to get into Rio’s Maracana for Argentina’s opening match win over Bosnia-Herzegovina.
On Saturday in Belo Horizonte, Diego Maradona did make it into the stadium but to everyone in Argentina’s amusement… left early before Lionel Messi cracked home the beautiful winner against Iran.
As a result, the hashtag #Maradonamufa (‘Maradona’s a curse’) was trending on Twitter in Argentina after the 1-0 win over Iran.
And, La Nacion reports that Julio Grondona, president of the AFA, was celebrating in the Argentina dressing room, saying: “The jinx is gone, and we won.”
Maradona left his post as coach after the last World Cup with harsh words for Grondona, so it is no surprise the latter should celebrate in this manner.
A picture of Diego Maradona leaving early, before Lionel Messi scored against Iran, is above…
WAR OF WORDS FOLLOWING JINX SLUR
Maradona gives “moron” Grondona the middle finger
Diego Maradona came out all guns blazing in response to comments by the head of the Argentinian FA, Julio Grondona, suggesting that the legend had been bringing Argentina bad luck during the World Cup.
“The jinx left and we won”, Grondona was quoted as saying after the 1-0 victory over Iran at the Mineirão in Belo Horizonte, where Lionel Messi’s last-gasp wonder strike came once Maradona had left the stadium.
The Argentina legend wasted little time biting back at the AFA president. “So, someone said that the goal was scored because I left”, he noted, before referring to Grondona in person, calling him a “moron” and literally sticking his middle finger up to show just what he thought of the comments.
Maradona, who coached the ‘Albiceleste’ for their disappointing campaign at South Africa 2010, is currently working out of Rio de Janeiro as a World Cup pundit for Venezuela TV channel ‘Telesur’, for whom he presents a special show entitled ‘De Zurda’ in reference to his famous left foot.
Maradona went even further in his riposte, labelling the AFA chief a stooge: “My message to Grondona is that I paid for the clothes on my back through hard work; he bought everything he has on thanks to his cronies at FIFA”.