One couldn't help but root for Iran as the match against pre-tournament favourites Argentina was coming to an end.
The Asian team, which had trouble finding opponents for friendlies in the lead up to the tournament due to the politcal uncertainty in Iran, were proving unbreakable against Messi and Argentina.
Let there be no doubt: Argentina controlled the game -- they had 64 percent possession, more shots: 21 to 8, better passing percentage: 90 to 66, created more chances: 18 to 7, and had more crosses: 41 to 16.
But Iran fought by putting their bodies on the line and defending like men possessed. While Argentina were on top in all the attacking stats, Iran's stats in defence against the team that in the eyes of many has the best concentration of attacking talent in the world were stunning -- 43 clearances and 17 blocks.
For 90 minutes, Iran didn't put a foot wrong. In the first half, they stayed circumspect; in the second half, they even attacked and forced good saves out of the Argentine goalkeeper. They more than deserved a point out of the match.
But sports isn't about deserves. In the 91st minute, Iran gave Lionel Messi an inch in line with the right hand post but well outside the D. Messi took that inch, converted it into a yard, took four steps, pushed past his marker and curled the ball into the left hand corner of the Iranian goal.
From 33 yards out, it was Messi's longest successful strike of 2014 and given the brilliant placement, it was unstoppable.
It was a deja vu moment -- we saw Messi do almost the same thing in the first game against Bosnia. Two bad games for Messi and Argentina, but two goals of rare quality rescuing them on both occasions.
But as long as Messi was shackled, Argentina looked anything but pre-tournament favourites. Iran didn't give him space and Argentina's lack of a midfield general was once again sorely exposed.
Coming into the tournament, many had felt that the Argentina defence would be suspect. But their forward line made up of Higuan (24 goals, 12 assists for Napoli in last season), Aguero (28 goals, 14 assists for Man City), Messi (41 goals, 15 assists for Barcelona), Lavezzi (12 goals, 7 assists for PSG), Palacio (19 goals, 8 assists for Inter) and Angel di Maria (11 goals, 26 assists for Real) would more than make up for whatever deficiencies they had at the back.
In total, the Argentina attack force has 135 goals and 82 assists in the last club season. Now, they are all players playing in the top leagues around Europe and surely, they can put in a better performance at the World Cup against opponents like Bosnia and Iran.
In that sense, Argentina have been one of the most disappointing sides in the tournament. So much was expected of them and Messi that their current show is underwhelming. The lack of a playmaker seems to be hurting as is their decision to play almost everything through the center of the pitch.
That is the area where Messi is at his best but it is also where Aguero and Higuain are dangerous. As a result, the three ended up being bunched up almost through the game. It makes them easier to mark and less potent.
Di Maria does a lot of his good work for Real down the flanks, using his superb pace to pull defenders out wide. But he hasn't been able to do that in this World Cup, creating just three chances in two games. Contrast that to the way he plays for Real and you know that tactically, they are just not letting him loose at the opposition.
Messi usually plays superbly in traffic but he isn't playing at Barcelona, with players who spend the best part of a year together. Instead, despite his improving record for Argentina, he still seems to find himself part of an unfamiliar team. The link-up play especially in the final third between the team has been lacking -- and that is hurting this team.
Messi has been directly involved in (64) goals in (88) appearances with Argentina's senior national team (40 goals, 24 assists). The numbers show just how key he is for the national side. It also shows that if you somehow managed to control him, you will have a chance and that is what has been happening so far.
Iran were very disciplined in defence but if Argentina can't break them down even with the best player in the world in their side, then it spells trouble for them.
For now, though, Messi's magic moments have earned them a reprieve and a chance to go back to the drawing board. Tactically, Alejandro Sabella's side still seems to be experimenting to find the right combination -- if and when they do, it'll show in the goals tally.
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Updated Date: Jun 22, 2014 20:04:41 IST