BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – An uninspiring Argentina side secured a place in the second round of the World Cup with a 1-0 victory over Iran on Saturday thanks to a superb goal in stoppage time by Lionel Messi.
Iran had defended solidly throughout the game and gave Argentina several close calls in the second half, creating several chances to win the match and cause a tournament sensation.
But Iran was punished for those missed chances when superstar Messi picked up the ball about just outside the penalty box and curled a shot into the left hand corner, beating a very solid Alireza Haghighi.
It was a moment of individual brilliance, and showed why Messi has been voted world player of the year no fewer than four times. Up until that point, he had been kept quiet by stoic Iran defending, while Argentina had at times been exposed to counterattacks.
The best of Iran's chances to win the match came in the 67th minute, when midfielder Ashkan Dejagah's powerful header from close range was tipped just over the bar by Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
Earlier, lone striker Reza Ghoochannejhad's header from close range was saved by Romero after a cross from the right. He later missed a chance for a late winner when his shot was again saved by Romero.
Before the match, Iran faced criticism for its defensive tactics after a dour 0-0 draw against Nigeria. But before Messi's strike, Iranian and Brazilian fans were singing "Ole, ole, ole, ole, Iran Iran!" in recognition of the team's attempts to score a winner.
But Messi denied Iran what would have ranked as its greatest result by drawing with the former world champions.
The victory sent the pro-Argentina crowd into raptures and most of them stayed in the stands well after the match, chanting and waving scarves and flags, and watching highlights — including Messi's goal — on the big screens.
It almost looked like Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella's decision to return to an attacking lineup would backfire. In Argentina's 2-1 win against Bosnia-Herzegovina in the Group F opener, Sabella started with a more defensive 5-3-2 lineup with only two strikers.
He then changed to a 4-3-3 formation in the second half — a system favored by Messi — and he continued with that lineup at the Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte.
With this win, Argentina remains the leader of Group F with six points.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.