Another Fine Messi! LIONEL TO THE RESCUE AS HIS MAGICAL LATE STRIKE DENIES IMPRESSIVE IRAN

Sunday Mirror (London, England), June 22, 2014 | Go to article overview

Another Fine Messi! LIONEL TO THE RESCUE AS HIS MAGICAL LATE STRIKE DENIES IMPRESSIVE IRAN


Byline: JACK LANG at the Estadio Mineirao, Belo Horizonte

IT was billed as Lionel Messi versus Team Melli: one of the game's all-time greats against Iran, affectionately known by their fans as 'national team' in Persian.

Four Ballon d'Or trophies against the underdogs from Persepolis FC, Kuwait SC, a handful of other clubs you probably haven't heard of, and Charlton Athletic.

But Argentina's second World Cup group game turned out to be less of a walk in the park than many expected. They required a late strike from their talisman to overcome Carlos Queiroz's side, with Messi admitting the Albiceleste were not at their best.

"It was a difficult game," said the Barcelona star. "They were closed at the back so it was hard to find space. It was also very hot. But we still had lots of chances in the first half."

"Maybe we can play better, but we'll improve as we go on in the tournament. We'll keep training to do that."

"Iran played a great match," added Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella. "They knew what to do when we lost the ball and they had chances to score."

On the way to the stadium, you could barely move for fans wearing shirts adorned with Messi's name.

Observing his popularity now, it's hard to believe that he was, not so long ago, regarded by the same supporters as something of an outsider - a player who wore their colours but did not truly represent them.

How times change. Ten goals in 14 qualifiers formed a fairly convincing argument that Messi does, in fact, care. And how the fans have responded. Inside the Mineirao, this imposing thorned crown of modernism, the team news was greeted with a roar that threatened to take the roof of when the announcers reached Argentina's No.10.

He also got plenty of attention from the Iran defence, who harried him throughout, allowing him no room to weave his magic. "I don't think they were marking just me," he claimed after the game. "The last two matches have been like this: we've faced very defensive sides. It's been hard for us all to find the space we need."

This is an Argentina squad blessed with staggering riches, especially in attack. And this time, to the relief of the vast majority present, Sabella opted to unleash their full force. Gonzalo Higuain, only a substitute in the 2-1 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina, was restored as Argentina reverted to the 4-3-3 formation that served them so well in qualifying.

That meant a front three of Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Messi, a system that the latter requested after the Bosnia game.

The early chances, though, fell not to Messi but to Higuain. He saw a shot smothered by Iran keeper Alireza Haghighi before miscontrolling horribly at the end of a swift counterattack. Haghighi then produced a fine stop to deny Aguero before Marcos Rojo and Ezequiel Garay both headed wide when it looked easier to score. Messi was restricted to one free-kick, curled wastefully over.

Iran began to throw men forward with more frequency and twice came close to the opener. Jalal Hosseini powered just over from a corner before Sergio Romero in the Argentina goal had to be alert to save Charlton's Reza Ghoochannejhad header on 52 minutes.

That should have shaken Argentina into life, but it didn't. …

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