By TIM FONTENAULT
For 90 minutes on Saturday, Iran seemed to have Argentina figured out. With Iran playing against no less than nine players behind the ball at a time, it looked like the South American side, which produced 21 shots but only four on target, was destined for a scoreless draw.
Luckily for Argentina, they have Lionel Messi.
In the second minute of stoppage time, Messi curled a beautiful, left-footed shot past Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi, helping Argentina escape with a 1-0 victory and a spot in the Round of 16.
Argentina’s chances were few and squandered before Messi’s winning goal. Prior to that, their best chance may have been Messi’s free kick in the 74th minute, which hit the side of the net.
Neither side created much of anything in the first half. Iran was happy to sit back and defend while Argentina struggled to break them. The best chances for both side came on late corner kicks, but Iran’s Jalal Hosseini and Argentina’s Ezequiel Garay both put headers over the bar from within six yards.
Things started to open up early in the second half, but not in the way the possession stats would suggest. Argentina finished with 77 percent of the possession, but Iran had the better chances throughout the second half, creating three incredible chances that could have very easily found the net, if not for goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
Messi will get the praise for the goal, but Romero could truly be considered the hero for Argentina.
Iran broke Argentina’s defense several times, and three times they very nearly scored, only to be rejected by Romero.
Reza Ghoochanneijhad was denied on a diving header in the 52nd minute after breaking free of the defense. Ashkan Dejagah perfectly placed a header 15 minutes later, but Romero leaped to tip it just inches over the crossbar. Iran’s last chance came with four minutes left, when Ghoochanneijhad sprung clear past the defense and put a shot across his body towards the far post. Romero was up for the occasion, knocking away what would have been the go-ahead goal at the time.
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz was upset with the officiating following the game, citing an incident in the 54th minute that he believes should have been a penalty. Dejagah was taken down in the box when going for the ball against Pablo Zabaleta. The Argentine fullback made a lot of contact with Dejagah, but referee Milorad Mažić told Dejagah to get up and play on.
Despite the result, Iran remains alive, thanks to their opening draw against Nigeria. They will finish group play against Bosnia and Herzegovina while Argentina closes against the African champions.