Messi's touch of magic spoils Iran's near-perfect plan vs. Argentina
JUN 21, 2014 3:46p ET
BELO HORIZONTE --
As the clock ticked to ninety, Diego Maradona left the Estadio Mineirao, frustrated, presumably, at seeing Argentina struggle desperately to break down a disciplined and doughty Iran. No sooner had he gone than Lionel Messi gathered the ball 25 yards from the Iran goal, shifted it to his left to create space for a shot and whipped a shot past Reza Ghoochannejhad, beyond the reach of Alireza Haghighi and just inside the far post. It was a brilliant goal, delivered at the perfect moment, and as such added further weight to the thought that this might be Messi's World Cup, that he might inspire his side to the trophy just as Maradona inspired the 1986 team.
On the stadium concourse, Julio Grondona, the president of the Argentinian Football Association, and the man who both hired and dismissed Maradona as national coach, spoke of his relief and delight. "The mufa left the stadium and we won," he said, using the typical Argentinian term for a bad-luck charm or jinx. He, clearly, has sensed the mood of destiny that seems to have gripped Messi in Brazil.
In Argentina's first game against Bosnia-Herzegovina, Messi scored a brilliant goal -- as it turned out, a decisive winner -- and did something Maradona had never achieved: score in the Maracana Stadium. That he had to wait for Maradona to leave the stadium before downing Iran only added to the sense that somehow their narratives are entwined.
Yet the truth is for much of the game, Messi had disappointed. He struggled to find space and, although he'd dragged one shot just wide at around the hour mark, his influence had been peripheral as Iran had defended superbly. For periods he strolled around in apparent disinterest, the hunched set of his shoulders suggesting his irritation. Until his late goal, it had seemed that the story of the game would be how well Iran had played, not just restricting Argentina but, in the second half, threatening to snatch a winner.
Carlos Quieroz, the Iran coach, is a master of settling out sides to deny the opposition space. When he was assistant manager of Manchester United, he organized the defense that shut out Messi and Barcelona over two legs of the UEFA Champions League semifinal in 2008. The key, United defender Patrice Evra explained, was to deny Messi space, and Iran did that magnificently on Saturday.
Iran set out in what would probably be termed a 4-1-4-1, the two lines of four playing no more than 10-15 yards apart when Argentina had the ball, denying them any space, with Javad Nekounam operating between the two lines, plugging gaps as members of the four went to close down the player in possession. Whenever Messi got it, he was surrounded by a swarm of red shirts. In the first half, Iran completed just 53 passes -- fewer than any team in the World Cup since records first began to be compiled in 1966, and fewer than Javier Mascherano.
Iran were more proactive after the break, seeking to capitalize on moments of indiscipline from Argentina as it lost patience and chased the game. They very nearly did so, as well. Twice Pejman Montazeri got forward from right back to find teammates with crosses; Ghoochannejhad's header was scrambled away by Sergio Romero; Ashkan Dejagah's attempt was spectacularly tipped over by the goalkeeper. Dejagah also probably should have had a penalty, bundled over in the corner of the box by a clumsy challenge from Pablo Zabaleta as Argentina looked increasingly rattled. Argentina's manager, Alejandro Sabella, admitted afterwards his side was struggling to achieve the right balance and that it had struggled to defend the counter-attack.
His biggest concern, though, may be the form of Gonzalo Higuain. The Napoli hitman missed the first half of the game against Bosnia and Herzegovina -- apparently because he wasnât fully fit -- and looked out of sorts, his touch heavy on a couple of occasions. He is a vital part of Argentina's tactical set up: sides naturally would sit deep against Messi and Sergio Aguero to deny them space to run into, but the aerial threat of Higuain, the risk of him winning headers in the box, prevents them from doing so. Rodrigo Palacio came on for Higuain and performed a sort of light imitation of his role, but Sabella clearly needs the power of the former Real Madrid striker.
Iran had only 23% possession, but had only one shot on target fewer than Argentina. That one proved decisive. For now, a couple of brilliant individual moments from Messi have been enough to carry Argentina. Iran came close, painfully close. As Messi's shot curved round Ghoochannejhad and inside the post, the defender Pooladi, who was two or three yards to the left of the ball, turned and sank in anguish to his knees, arms outspread. As Messi ran away in celebration, it was the perfect image of how close Iran had come.