Fernando Vergara / AP
Saturday, June 21, 2014 | 12:32 p.m.
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil — Lionel Messi finally found a way through Iran's defensive wall with a superb goal in stoppage time to give Argentina a 1-0 victory on Saturday and a place in the World Cup knockout stages.
Iran had defended solidly throughout the game and also took the match to Argentina in the second half, creating several chances to win the Group F match and cause a tournament sensation.
But Iran was punished for those missed chances when Messi picked up the ball about 20 yards (meters) out and smacked a shot into the left hand corner.
"In the first half, we had four or five clear chances to score a goal and in the second half, they complicated things for us with counterattacks," Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella said. "But having Messi resolved everything."
It was a moment of individual brilliance, and showed why Messi has been voted world player of the year no fewer than four times. Messi, getting a rare touch, quickly moved the ball toward his dangerous left foot and fired a curling shot just beyond the reach of the diving goalkeeper and into the left corner of the net.
"When I saw that I had scored I was very happy, because we were in added time already and wanted to qualify for the next phase," Messi said.
Up until that point, he had been kept quiet by Iran's stoic defending, while Argentina had at times been exposed to counterattacks.
"It was a difficult game to be honest," Messi said. "They were able to close up at the back, so it was difficult for us to break down the defense. It was very hot for us."
Iran had several chances to win it, especially in the second half. The best of those opportunities 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.
"We know that it would be a difficult, tense match," Romero said. "Thank God I could get my hand on the ball and it didn't go in.
"Messi then rubbed his magic lamp and we won."
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.
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said two people made the difference in the match: Messi and referee Milorad Mazic. Queiroz said the referee should have pointed to the penalty spot when Argentina right back Pablo Zabaleta mistimed his challenge on Dejagah in the second half.
"I hope they don't punish me, but I'm telling the truth: It was a penalty," Queiroz said, stressing that Mazic had a clear view. "The referee played a role in this game.
"Messi was great, he scored the winning goal. The referee, I'm sorry to say, was not."
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.
Despite the defeat, after opening with a 0-0 draw against Nigeria, Iran can still hope to qualify for the second round. Nigeria plays Bosnia-Herzegovina, which lost its opener 2-1 to Argentina, later on Saturday.
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. In the first half, it looked like Argentina would score at least one goal, but Iran's defense stood firm and the South Americans nearly paid for several missed chances until Messi's winner.