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 By Andy Mitten
Jun 21, 2014

Three Points: Argentina defeat Iran

Our ESPN expert panel discuss Lionel Messi's leadership and game-winning performances in the World Cup thus far.

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- Reaction to Argentina's 1-0 Group F win versus Iran.

1. Messi makes the difference

Argentina's media were direct in their assertions to coach Alejandro Sabella that he was getting things wrong before the game. They criticised his 3-5-2 starting formation against Bosnia-Herzegovina, and criticised him further when he admitted that he'd discussed the formation with Lionel Messi at half-time before switching to the 4-3-3 that Messi favours.

Did Messi have too much power? Was he the one calling the shots rather than the manager? Argentina started with a 4-3-3 against Iran. Overwhelming favourites against a team who are 750-1 to win the World Cup, the alignment brought them possession but little fluidity. It didn't help them carve open a defence so stubborn that it survived one of football's best attacks for 90 minutes.

Frustrations became apparent as Argentina tried to come up with a plan B. They didn't have one, save for punting high crosses. They came close -- Messi from free kicks, Sergio Aguero from headers and shots -- but they couldn't break Iran's defence down in normal time.

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Only a moment of genius was going to decide this. And it did, from the best player in the world, as Messi curled a shot from outside the area beyond goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi. Sport can be so cruel, but Messi's brilliance was an apt decider. Argentina's performance will be criticised, Iran's praised.

In the bowels of Tehran's national stadium, three posters of the Iran teams who've reached previous World Cups take pride of place. The current team overcame substantial political, logistical and financial problems to reach Brazil. They've earned the right to be remembered, but can they become the greatest ever Iranian team by advancing from the group stage? That became much harder after Messi's magic, but Iran are still in the World Cup going into their last group game.

2. So close for Iran

"Opponents can be intimidated by Iran, but some of my young players can be shy and humble in the outside world. They don't travel a lot, they speak Farsi, not a language well-spoken in the world," explained Iran coach Carlos Queiroz before the tournament.

He's sought to change that mentality in the three years he's been in charge, leading Iran not only to their fourth World Cup, but from being the seventh-ranked team in Asia to the first. Beating Asian powerhouse South Korea away showed that they weren't for buckling.

Despite the influence of Iranian players raised in the west, "Team Melli" remain the subject of much speculation, yet Iran want to be judged on the field. Queiroz maintained that his side weren't coming to Brazil for tourism, and on the anniversary of their only World Cup win -- an epic 1998 triumph against the United States -- they defended resolutely in Belo Horizonte.

Nobody expected any different -- Iran had drawn four previous games, including the opener against Nigeria, 0-0. Argentina enjoyed 73 percent of first-half possession, but couldn't find a way through.

Only a moment of brilliance from Messi denied Iran a deserved point.

When Argentina threatened, Iran's central defensive pairing of Montazeri and Sadeghi, who play their club football in Qatar and Tehran respectively, soaked up everything their opponents' glittering front line could throw at them for more than 90 minutes.

It wasn't a game for the purists, but the Brazilians in the crowd admired Iran's resolve, partly because it irked their rivals and neighbours so much. By half-time fans were singing: "Ole, ole, ole, Iran, Iran."

Queiroz's Iran didn't tire, they didn't wilt, and they created chances of their own as Sabella's side were profligate in conceding free kicks. But the focus was always on a defence that lasted until the 91st minute. Iran came so close to causing a great shock. So close.

3. Crowd almost witnesses a shock

They began singing half an hour before kickoff and never really stopped. The massive Argentine contingent, 30,000 strong inside the Mineirao, were melodic, lilting and passionate. In the presence of their spiritual leader, Diego Maradona, they waved their blue and white shirts and scarves, danced around and waited for the goals to come.

And waited. By the end, after Messi had saved their day, they refused to leave the stadium, and sang so loud you couldn't hear the public-address system. For 20 minutes. Many had come on the charter flights that filled the arrivals board at Belo Horizonte airport with the words "Buenos Aires." Others are following their team by road on what they hope will be a month-long pilgrimage.

Aside from hosts Brazil, Argentina are the best-supported team at the World Cup. Tickets for their matches are also the most wanted, for several reasons. Demand for any game in Rio de Janeiro is higher, as that's where most visitors are staying. Argentina's opening game was there, and Brazilians want to see Messi.

So while tickets for Colombia versus Greece in Belo Horizonte were relatively easy to get hold of, those for Argentina versus Iran were not. Thousands of Argentines travelled to Belo Horizonte and didn't get in the stadium.

With such numbers comes immense pressure from enormous expectations. If Argentina fail to reach the semifinals it would be considered disastrous. Iran had nothing to lose; Argentina had everything to prove after what many considered to be an underwhelming opening win. With the score level at half-time, their fans became as subdued as their attack.

As Iran grew in confidence and had good second-half chances, their 2,000 supporters grew louder -- helped by 10,000 Brazilians. What had started as a three-way singing contest became two-sided as neutrals thought they were witnessing Belo Horizonte's biggest shock since the United States beat England in 1950. It nearly was. It so nearly was.

Andy Mitten

Manchester-born Andy Mitten founded United We Stand in 1989, at age 15. He has written 11 books since his career began in 1995 and visited almost 100 countries while working for numerous magazines and newspapers worldwide. Follow him on Twitter @AndyMitten.