BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (AP) — Lionel Messi scored a superb goal in stoppage time to give Argentina a 1-0 victory over Iran on Saturday and secure his team’s place in the second round of the World Cup.
Iran had defended solidly throughout the game and also took the match to Argentina in the second half, creating several chances to win the Group F match and cause a tournament sensation.
But Iran was punished for those missed chances when Messi picked up the ball about 20 yards (meters) out and curled a shot into the left hand corner.
It was a moment of individual brilliance, and showed why Messi has been voted world player of the year no fewer than four times. Up until that point, he had been kept quiet by stoic Iran defending, while Argentina had at times been exposed to counterattacks.
Iran had several chances to win it, especially in the second half. The best of those opportunities came in the 67th minute, when midfielder Ashkan Dejagah’s powerful header from close range was tipped just over the bar by Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
Earlier, lone striker Reza Ghoochannejhad’s header from close range was saved by Romero after a cross from the right. He later missed a chance for a late winner when his shot was again saved by Romero.
Before the match, Iran faced criticism for its defensive tactics after a dour 0-0 draw against Nigeria. But before Messi’s strike, Iranian and Brazilian fans were singing “Ole, ole, ole, ole, Iran Iran!” in recognition of the team’s attempts to score a winner.
But Messi denied Iran what would have ranked as its greatest result by drawing with the former world champions.
The victory sent the pro-Argentina crowd into raptures and most of them stayed in the stands well after the match, chanting and waving scarves and flags, and watching highlights — including Messi’s goal — on the big screens.
It almost looked like Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella’s decision to return to an attacking lineup would backfire. In Argentina’s 2-1 win against Bosnia-Herzegovina in the Group F opener, Sabella started with a more defensive 5-3-2 lineup with only two strikers.
He then changed to a 4-3-3 formation in the second half — a system favored by Messi — and he continued with that lineup at the Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte.