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This was the upset result that never was but how close were Iran to pulling one off here. They deserved one point against Argentina, if not all three.
For more than 90 minutes, they had kept Lionel Messi under control but the little genius made the most of the one time they couldn’t with a brilliant goal.
Football’s about goals, it is what decides games. But every once in a while there comes a game where doughty defending becomes the talking point. Saturday afternoon’s contest here was one such. During his time at Manchester United as Alex Ferguson’s assistant, Carlos Queiroz was credited by players as finding a way to stop Messi. Without the big names that usually pull on a Manchester United shirt, he nearly did that again.
And it wasn’t just Messi Iran had to deal with. There was Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel di Maria. Argentina had scored the most number of goals in the South American qualifiers. Not only did Iran contain them, they also had two glorious opportunities to change the game. Queiroz also claimed they were denied a penalty.
Reining in Argentina required a team effort that Iran produced with Javad Nekounam and Andranik Timotian and the backline being the first among equals. Timotian plays for Esteghlal FC in Iran and Nekounam for Kuwait SC, neither a top line club in Asia. The quartet at the back had Jalal Hosseini (Perspolis), Amirhossein Sadeghi (Esteglal FC), Pejman Montazeri (Umm Salal SC; Qatar) and Mehrdad Poolkadi (Perspolis). But this sextet played like they belonged to a major European club. For 90 minutes and a little more, they ensured Argentina didn’t get space in dangerous areas. In goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi, who turns out for Sporting Covilha in Portugal, Iran also had a man they could count on.
It takes loads of concentration and discipline to play without the ball for large stretches of time and still not be flustered. Messi’s goal was pure genius but that it came from a long-ranger showed how effective Iran were in keeping their more illustrious opponents at bay. This wasn’t parking a bus in front of goal and hoofing the ball upfield, this was an intense coordinated effort that deserved praise. And maybe even a point.
Iran could have had at least that had Sergio Romero not saved Argentina again. The goalkeeper had a good game against Bosnia-Herzegovina and on Saturday, he showed superb reflexes to first stop Reza Ghoochannejad and then Ashkan Dejagah, the second save being better because despite having moved up, he managed to tip the header over for a corner-kick. For some part of the second half, Iran looked the better team.
It could have been different had Argentina taken their chances in the first half but the quality of both their finishing and delivery left a lot to be desired. It also didn’t help that Di Maria looked strangely subdued. Argentina channelled most attacks down the right initially with Zabaleta moving up. They changed direction in the second with Marcos Rojo doing most of the overlapping. But neither produced enough quality balls to keep the Iran back four under sustained pressure.
Argentina also couldn’t capitalise on the number of free-kick Iran conceded in dangerous areas early in the game. But before you blame Messi for that, think of the goal he scored. In both games, Messi had an ordinary first half. In both he turned it around in the second. Will this finally be his World Cup?