A stunning goal from Lionel Messi in second-half injury time spared Argentina’s blushes as they ran out 1-0 winners against Iran on Saturday afternoon.
Iran had been completely written off prior to the game but proved to be no pushovers, with a well-organised defence and a number of close run chances that nearly embarrassed the less-than-impressive former world champions.
Although their attacks were few and far between, Iran held their own throughout first half, despite mounting pressure from the Argentinian strikeforce of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, which boasted 80 international goals in 176 games.
Argentina – who have not won a major tournament since their 1993 Copa America success – had 80% possession in the first half but could not break down a steely Iranian defence; the best half-chance came when Higuain laid the ball off to Aguero who forced a full-stretch save from goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi.
Five minutes earlier Higuain had gone close himself, firing a tame shot into the torso of Haghighi after picking up Fernando Gago’s searching through-ball.
Iran’s only threat of launching an attack was from set pieces, and Jalal Hosseini went close just before the break but couldn’t quite make enough contact on his header from Ashkan Dejagah’s free-kick.
Carlos Quieroz’s Iran side appeared refreshed going into the second half and should have taken the lead when Sergio Romero palmed Reza Ghoochannejhad’s close-range header wide from Pejman Montazeri’s inswinging cross.
Six minutes after the restart, left-back Marcos Rojo’s cross looked destined for Aguero’s head but somehow the Manchester City striker made no contact, whilst Messi dragged a shot wide on the hour mark.
On 54 minutes, Iran were denied what looked like a certain penalty as Dejagah was brought down by Pablo Zabaleta but referee Milorad Mazic waved away his appeals.
Argentina were fortunate to not be a goal behind after 67 minutes as Montazeri whipped in another dangerous ball for Dejagah, with the resulting header goalbound but for Romero’s fingertips.
In the final minutes of the game, Argentina threw everything at Iran to no avail with Messi and substitute Rodrigo Palacio both testing Haghighi but with nothing to show for their troubles.
Ghoochannejhad stung Romero’s palms once again late on, but in the first minute of injury time, Messi picked the ball up 25 yards out and curled an unstoppable shot past Haghighi that secured Argentina’s place in the last-16 with a game still to play.