Photo: Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi curled a long-distance shot into the top-left corner of the goal in stoppage time to give Argentina a 1-0 victory here Saturday over Iran in Group F action and send the South American squad into the World Cup’s knockout stage.
The four-time world player of the year’s heroics at Estadio Mineirão in this southeastern city salvaged what had been a disconcerting performance by the Albiceleste and their “fab four” of Messi, Sergio Agüero, Angel di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain.
The Iranians took the field fully focused on preventing goals against their more talented rival and net minder Alireza Haghighi helped that cause by making two outstanding saves of shots by Higuain and Agüero, in the 13th and 20th minutes, respectively.
Argentina’s other main first-half chances came on headers by defenders Marcos Rojo, Federico Fernandez and Ezequiel Garay, but neither of them could hit their mark.
Messi also was unable to penetrate the Iranian wall with a free kick.
Early in the second half, Argentina’s stars continued to be stymied and goalkeeper Sergio Romero needed to come up with a remarkable save to deny an attempt by Reza Ghoochannejhadn.
More Argentine offensive ineptitude ensued and coach Alejandro Sabella sent in Rodrigo Palacio and Ezequiel Lavezzi to replace Agüero and Higuain in an effort to find a better complement for Messi.
In the last minutes of regulation time, Haghighi saved a header by Palacio and Romero impeded a strike by Ghoochannejhadn to keep the game scoreless.
But during stoppage time, when it seemed Iran might pull off an historic draw against a soccer powerhouse, Messi received a ball outside the area, created some space and then delivered a splendid curling left-footed shot out of the goalkeeper’s reach and into the upper-left corner of the goal.
With the win, Argentina qualified for the knockout stage heading into its last round-robin match on Wednesday against Nigeria in Porto Alegre, but the team has to be concerned about its inability thus far to get its star players in sync.
Iran, meanwhile, still has a chance at reaching the round of 16 and will play its final Group F match on Wednesday against Bosnia and Herzegovina in Salvador.