Messi's magic secures 1-0 win over Iran
Messi's late magic breaks the resistance of brave Iran
(Lionel Messi 90+1)
In stoppage time, one moment of understated beauty lifted the ugliest of games.
Lionel Messi had contributed little in a contest slipping away from Argentina. He had cut a disconsolate, peripheral figure.
But the greatest conjure their greatest moments when they often least deserved. They defy natural justice. They deliver victory.
With an awful Argentina destined for a draw against Iran, Messi wriggled free outside the box, dropped a shoulder and waved that magic wand of a left foot.
His adoring supporters blew the roof off the Belo Horizonte Stadium as they celebrated the most unlikely of 1-0 wins in Group F.
Messi had masked his country's shortcomings once again, but for how much longer?
Argentina cannot win the World Cup, not like this. They got away with it against Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the magnificent Iranians exposed their limitations this morning (Singapore time).
Alejandro Sabella's muddled men were mired in mediocrity.
Apart from his late winner, Messi drifted in and out of the game like a hallucination. Angel di Maria laboured without reward. Gonzalo Higuain was anonymous.
IN THE SHADOWS
With Holland and France lighting up the tournament, Argentina are being left in the shadows.
They better get better quickly. Patience is not a virtue among their incomparable hardcore supporters.
Argentina annexed the Estadio Mineirao before kick-off. They owned the stadium. The blue-and-white takeover of the historic bowl-shaped football venue sent shivers down the spine.
Argentina's voices soared across the blue Belo Horizonte sky and lifted the soul. The concrete stand literally shook beneath the feet during the national anthem. It was a privilege to be present.
England's opening matches were forlorn trips to the morgue in comparison.
But Argentina's unbridled passion threatened to descend into ugly petulance.
Bottles were thrown at Brazilian fans around me as stewards ushered them to one of the few non-Argentina areas of the stadium.
But the match struggled to rival the atmosphere. Despite Argentina's early midfield dominance, Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi wasn't tested until the 21st minute, clawing away Sergio Aguero's curling effort.
In the build-up, Iran coach Carlos Queiroz made no apologies for his dour, defensive 4-5-1 approach, and nor should he. The pragmatic Portuguese makes the most of what's at his disposal.
And against all expectations, Iran almost silenced the increasingly jittery crowd in the 41st minute, when Jalal Hosseini bludgeoned his header over from six metres. He was aiming for the top corner. He should've scored.
From a bouncing stadium to a booing one, jeers rang out as the stuttering Argentinians trumped off at half-time.
La Albiceleste's patriotism negates their patience. They demand results.
As the second half progressed, the impossible happened. In two small pockets of the stadium, Iran out-sang the South Americans. The Asians were winning the battle in the stands and acquitting themselves admirably on the pitch.
Iran were in the ascendancy. Argentina were nervous.
They were equal parts lacklustre and lucky when Iran were denied a penalty, after Pablo Zabaleta clattered into Reza Ghoochannejad inside the penalty box.
Only a brave referee would risk the wrath of La La Albiceleste in the stadium. Serbia's Milorad Mazic wasn't one.
Still, Argentina threatened to implode, calling on Sergio Romero to make the save of the game - if not the tournament - to acrobatically tip over Ashkan Dejagah's diving header.
Reza then found himself clean through in the 86th minute, but his shot stung the palms of the busy Romero.
Against all odds, all expectations, all rhyme and reason, the South Americans seemed to be hanging on.
And then, Messi intervened. He took a terrible team performance by the scruff of the neck and conjured a victory from nothing.
Sitting below me in the stand, Diego Maradona applauded in admiration.
He knows how to take an under-performing Argentina side to World Cup glory. Messi might have to do the same.
“Not even two goalkeepers could have stopped that Lionel shot.”
- Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella, on Messi’s injury-time winner, which flew past a diving and despairing Iran goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi