Messi embodies Argentina spirit
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- As Lionel Messi let it all out in a joyous postmatch celebration, a wide-eyed Javier Mascherano couldn't contain his awe. "This is what Messi has," the midfielder gushed after his Barcelona teammate had broken Iran's hearts in the 91st minute with a wonderful curling effort. "On the day he is not so involved in the play, he appears and does that."
"That" was not just one of the great goals of this World Cup; it was one of the World Cup's great moments -- the type the history of the tournament has been built on. It is also the kind of strike that helps create legacies. It said much that, as the moment came, the watching Diego Maradona had got up out of his seat to leave the stadium. That was how unlikely a goal against the dogged Iranians seemed at that point.
Messi himself had not been playing well; Argentina as a whole were playing worse. A brilliant Iranian blockade had frustrated them, and Alejandro Sabella's side were running out of ideas as the doubts rose. Argentina badly required salvation, and they got it with one swing of a famous left boot.
As the clocked ticked well into stoppage time, and all 11 Iranian players amassed in the box in front of Messi, he supremely curled the ball into the top corner of Alireza Haghighi's previously unimpeachable net. Iran had been beaten; Argentina were though to the second round and, after netting the winner against Bosnia, Messi had provided another moment of first-class quality.
But while all the questions about the team have temporarily evaporated, they have not gone away. The goal felt all the more glorious and meaningful precisely because there had been so little substance to Argentina's performance. If one definition of genius is conjuring something from nothing, this was the perfect display because, on an imperfect afternoon, Argentina were largely unconvincing again.
There are two ways of looking at the game. The first is that Sabella's side are perhaps not up to that much and were all too easily frustrated -- they played a more attacking 4-3-3 formation, but they didn't have anything like the same fluidity or fire. The second is that they simply came up against a genuinely excellent backline and one of the best containment jobs in recent World Cup history. It's tempting to say any attack would have struggled against Iran on Saturday. Argentina are supposed to possess the best forward line in the tournament, but it's possible they came up against the best defensive unit. Iran's conservatism certainly stands out in a World Cup that has been so open, but that need not be seen as a negative.
Indeed, with the run of the play and a couple of great chances during one period in the second half, Iran came close to a historic upset. Coach Carlos Queiroz's renowned ability to organise a defence built the platform -- Messi's goal was remarkably just the second his sides have conceded out of six games at a World Cup -- but the result could have been so different had it not been for one dubious decision.
"It happened exactly as I expected," Queiroz stated afterwards. "They held the ball, passed it, but our concentration was very good. At the end of the day, we saw a very emotional ending. We created a couple of chances, of course Argentina as well but, at the end of the day, two personalities made the difference. They got the goal because they scored, coming from a great personality, Messi. A brilliant strike. But the second personality was the referee, because there was a clear penalty, a clear penalty. I'm very proud of my players but I'm very frustrated and it was a penalty."
Queiroz was talking about Pablo Zabaleta's second-half foul on Ashkan Dejagah, when he clumsily brought down the Fulham winger as he was trying to clear the ball. It wasn't the only moment that should give Argentina pause for thought, as both Dejagah and Ghoochannejhad came close to heading goals that would surely have been a peak moment for Iran's entire football culture. Instead they found goalkeeper Sergio Romero in fine form.
The languid and often inactive displays of Messi and Sergio Aguero at one end were in stark contrast to the nervous energy at the other. There was no dismissing Iran, and Sabella admitted that the amount of times Queiroz's team got forward has given him cause for concern. It also reframed and returned the debate about formations.
"This sort of thing can happen, their chances," Sabella said. "I'm worried about this. Of course we want to win, obviously, so we will try and strike a balance, which is not easy but we will try. And sometimes during counterattack situations, a match is decided. Today things got a little difficult on counterattacks, especially around the end of the match.
"We will try to keep working on our defence, we want to improve there. We analyse and study the matches and we reach the same conclusions. There are many things we'll have to think about after this match, and there's a lot we've got to improve on, yes."
Argentina may be forced to occasionally return to 5-3-2 against better teams, precisely because their defence looks so weak, but that may not be a problem. The ability to switch could actually prove crucial for Argentina. It is also difficult to escape the feeling that they are not fully on form yet, that they have more to give. The reality is they must.
Their perfect 10, however, will always offer a different reality. "Having Messi means anything is possible," Sabella enthused. It is also eminently possible his performance, and this entire game, may reflect their tournament: unconvincing early on, a few better touches as they got into it, and then a final glorious moment.
Miguel Delaney is London correspondent for ESPN and also writes for the Irish Examiner, the Independent, Blizzard and assorted others. He is the author of an award-nominated book on the Irish national team called 'Stuttgart to Saipan' (Mentor) and was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year in 2011.