Belo Horizonte: Having already bettered his last World Cup with a nerve-easing first goal in Argentina’s opener, Lionel Messi should lead his countrymen to an easy win against unheralded Iran in Belo Horizonte on Saturday.
Argentina started with a five-man defence in their 2-1 defeat of Bosnia, but coach Alejandro Sabella should toss off the shackles and start with the players’ preferred 4-3-3 against one of the tournament’s most limited teams.
That tactical switch during the Bosnia game freed up Messi, Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain — Argentina’s famous “Fab Four” attackers — enabling the four-time World Player of the Year to score a dazzling goal that was his first at a World Cup in eight years. Higuain came on as a substitute to set up the goal for Messi.
“Messi could be the best player in the world — if he was human,” quipped awestruck Iran coach Carlos Queiroz, saying his charges would need a “miracle” to beat Argentina.
Iran may take heart from history, though.
In their sole prior meeting, Iran did secure a 1-1 draw with Argentina over 90 minutes during a 1977 match in Madrid — albeit they then lost on penalties in a low-key mini-tournament to celebrate Real Madrid’s 75th anniversary.
Asia’s best-ranked side at 43rd in the Fifa standings, Iran showed their vaunted defensive abilities in a 0-0 opening draw against Nigeria against Group F.
That game brought jeers from Brazilian spectators otherwise gorged on goals in the tournament, but delighted Iran who earned their first World Cup clean sheet, and only sixth ever point, in four World Cup appearances since 1978.
If Argentina win on Saturday, they will top Group F on six points and guarantee passage to the last sixteen.
Messi, Argentina’s most gifted player since Diego Maradona and desperate for a World Cup on his otherwise glittering resume with Barcelona, admitted he was nervous before the first game and urged an attacking formation from the off against Iran.
“That’s how we have to carry on, like the second half (vs Bosnia), we feel more comfortable that way,” he said. “We have more chances to pass, the four of us go out all guns blazing.”
“The only way that Iran can surprise us is if we under-estimate the match,” Argentina’s reserve goalkeeper Mariano Andujar told reporters.
“But this is football — 11 versus 11, everything can happen. We can’t go out to the field thinking this is going to be easy.” (agencies)