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Trust Messi to fill the gap

The Straits Times | Marc Lim | Wednesday, Jun 25, 2014

Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi.

It is the only thing Lionel Messi seeks when he steps onto a football pitch: space. It can come in the middle of the field, or in the penalty box. A narrow gap between two defenders, or a teammate left all alone, it is all Messi desires.

For 92 minutes on Saturday, Iranian space was a rare commodity at the Estadio Mineirao. All match long, Argentina's No. 10 probed, schemed. But there was always a body here, a leg there.

Then, as Iranian legs tired, space presented itself.

Messi was 30m from goal, pushed to the corner of the penalty box with five defenders in front of him, when he got the ball. But when Reza Ghoochannejad, a striker by trade, backed off too much, Messi found the space he needed.

A quick shift of the feet to the left offered him a sight of goal, a sweet caress of the ball with his left foot gave him immortality.

The ball curled beyond Alireza Haghighi's desperate dive to nestle just inside his right post. It was a goal by the slimmest of margins, for the slimmest of wins.

Cheers from the blue-and-white clad Argentinian contingent, who had formed about three-quarters of the 56,000-strong crowd in the stadium, had turned to jeers. Now, they found their celebratory voices once again.

A 0-1 loss was harsh on Iran, who, despite setting up with a "defend-first" mindset, had chances to win. But while Carlos Queiroz's men were equal to everything Argentina threw at them, there is just no answer to greatness.

"Fortunately, we have a genius and he's Messi," a somewhat relieved Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella told an equally relieved Argentinian press corps after the match. "And, fortunately, he's Argentinian."

The win booked Sabella and his men a spot in the last 16. But deep down, he knew the three points could easily have been one, or even none.

Iran, under defensive mastermind Queiroz of Manchester United fame, had been set up to defend.

That they completed only 50 passes in the first half, reportedly the lowest number in the first half of a World Cup match in over 50 years, spoke volumes of their intentions.

Argentina outpassed the Iranians 510 to 136, dominated the ball 70 per cent of the time, but could not find a breakthrough despite boasting the attacking talents of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel di Maria, Fernando Gago and Messi.

They peppered the Iranian goal with 19 attempts, yet it was Iran who found space as Argentina poured men forward in the second half to attack.

But even as the Iranians frustrated Argentina, Sergio Romero proved unbeatable, denying Ghoochannejad and Ashkan Dejagah with world-class saves.

Queiroz paid tribute to Messi's brilliance but also pointed out that another man had contributed to the Argentina win.

"Two men changed the game, Messi and the referee," said the Portuguese, who was adamant that Serbian referee Milorad Mazic should have awarded a penalty for a foul by Pablo Zabaleta on Dejagah. "It was a clear penalty. He was five metres away."

Sabella insisted that Zabaleta had played the ball, claiming that even the defender had told him so. Replays, however, suggested otherwise.

But perhaps what he may not quite have the answer to at the moment is why Argentina have yet to showcase the attacking quality that their team boast.

Three goals in two matches may not quite make for grim reading.

But when you consider that their opponents were Iran and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that fellow World Cup favourites like the Netherlands (eight), Germany (six) and even France (eight) have had no problems finding the net, then the lack of goals is a concern.

Said Messi: "If we analyse both matches, we might say we can play better. But as we go along in the tournament, we will be improving and will reach our full potential. We know we are not playing as well as we are expected."

Raising their game will mean that Higuain and Aguero have to step up. Both, especially Higuain, were disappointing on Saturday. They were far too static and offered their team-mates little option in the face of opponents content to sit back.

Added Messi: "It was difficult to break down their defence to find space. We need spaces because that's when we are dangerous."

Argentina have the luxury of knowing that all they need is a draw against Nigeria to top Group F. But if they are to progress beyond the round of 16, they cannot rely on just one man.

Against Bosnia, the picture of Messi against six defenders became one of the lasting images of Brazil 2014. Against Iran, there is a similar picture.

Messi might be a genius but one man may not be enough to win the World Cup.


This article was first published on JUNE 23, 2014.
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