Group F: A tale of two forwards
It was fifth versus 43rd in the FIFA World Rankings. A Who’s Who in the annals of world football, against a motley crew whose most recognisable names turned out for Charlton and Fulham. On paper, Sunday’s tie between Argentina and Iran should have finished with a landslide victory for the South Americans. Instead it ended 1-0 courtesy of a Lionel Messi wonder strike, Los Albiceleste hardly covering themselves with glory en route.
The prelude to the Group F encounter had seen stars such as captain Messi and Pablo Zabaleta campaigning for the return of Argentina’s customary 4-3-3 formation. Alejandro Sabella had switched to the tried-and-tested in the second half of the game against Bosnia and Herzegovina. The 2-1 victory then appeared to present the coach his blueprint for unleashing the fab four at his disposal in attack. Yet all the meek triumph over Iran achieved was to serve up a whole new glut of questions.
In the second game of a tournament, you expect a team to show more of what they’re capable of. How long will it take to witness an Argentina in full flow, precisely? Who might have thought an attack boasting Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain would have trouble scoring goals. Gorged on success at club level and accustomed to getting their way, the squad had set out for what conventional wisdom dictated to be a routine three points. But Iran soon dashed any false sense of superiority their glamorous rivals harboured.
It had taken the plucky underdogs only 90 minutes to expose their glaring limitations. The insecurities betrayed to a team so far below their standing raises alarm bells. Impressive possession stats (79%) and pass completion rates (90%) belie how deadly comfortable Team Melli had looked muzzling a star-studded Argentina line-up. “Iran closed down well and we struggled to find space. We are looking to get the balance, it is not easy,” Sabella lamented afterwards. "We have to keep improving. We are the first to know that the level of play is not what we (can) give."
Built for form and not force, Argentina lacked a second gear as Iran sealed off any gaps. Fernando Gago and Higuain, key in their roles earlier against Bosnia, saw their contributions dwindle sharply after promising starts. Only once did the Napoli striker combine meaningfully with Aguero for the latter to rifle on target. Both were rendered so ineffectual going up against a compact and supremely organised rearguard that they were eventually hauled off.
Sensing their counterparts were unable to keep up their level of clout at both ends of the pitch, Iran showed reputation counts for little when going mano-a-mano. There was a child-like naivety exhibited by new Argentina centurion Javier Mascherano as Masoud Shojaei, of unheralded Las Palmas no less, bamboozled him on the counter.
From the ensuing cross, Reza Ghoochannejhad drew a determined block from Sergio Romero. Ashkan Dejagah must have raised bigger gasps from the crowds back home, where football has gained massive traction as a sport, after he forced an even better stop from the Monaco backup minutes later.
Truth be told, Iran could have feasibly taken all and defeated Goliath in the process. But there’s little you can do about a golazo from a four-time Ballon d’Or winner. And if there’s one thing Sabella and the Argentine audience would like to take to heart from through this display, it’s that Messi has arrived on the world stage spectacularly.
The 26-year-old was on the receiving end of questions about his mettle again after the Iranians had stifled him for long spells. Yet his constant desire to be the protagonist under the watchful gaze of Diego Maradona in the stands was ultimately matched with his 40th Argentina goal and second World Cup blockbuster in as many games.
A priceless sense of relief engulfed the supporters when Messi pulled of that trademark moment of quality. Tellingly, they know they’ll be able to rely on their talisman while waiting for the rest of the team to stand up and be counted. Once the centre of frenzied debate, La Pulga could now be Argentina’s charm. Messi has come to find his feet for his country, sweeping the watching world off theirs in the process.
From prolific to profligate
While one star forward delivered for his country, another flattered to deceive. Edin Dzeko, top scorer for Bosnia and Herzegovina in the fledgling nation’s brief footballing history, is without a World Cup goal to his name as his team bowed out of their first ever finals with defeat to Nigeria. The Manchester City hitman’s face was a sorry one as he trudged off the Arena Pantanal pitch.
Dzeko had come to epitomise the rise of Bosnian football. Elevated to legendary status back home for his contributions on a sporting and social level, perhaps it was most fitting that the former East Bloc nation’s dreams fell by the wayside with his own spurned opportunities on Sunday.
Hugely unlucky to have seen an eighth-minute opener incorrectly ruled out for offside, none of the other three shots the frontman took were of sufficient calibre to beat Vincent Enyeama, the custodian who ran up 1,062 minutes without conceding a goal for Lille. The Super Eagles keeper impressively turned a snapshot against the post in extra-time.
It was not a night for the Zmajevi’s veterans. Captain Emir Spahic, for more than a decade representing his war-torn and flood-hit country’s stubborn resistance against superior forces, deserved a better swansong than this defeat. The Bayer Leverkusen man was unceremoniously dumped on his backside by Emmanuel Emenike as Peter Odemwingie fired in the game’s solitary goal from the ensuing delivery.
Nigeria are now headed for Porto Alegre needing to take just a point off Argentina next Thursday in order to progress from Group F. The result buys Stephen Keshi valuable time. His final squad selection brought him under scrutiny before the tournament in Brazil. But skepticism is finally giving way to optimism after the manner Emenike and Ahmed Musa devastated Bosnia’s full-backs.
With Argentina looking particularly susceptible to expert deliveries from wide areas, can Keshi pull off a major upset later this week by adding the South Americans' scalp to Nigeria’s record?
Jeremy Lim is a freelance football writer with a particular interest in the Spanish, Italian and South American game. He writes for several online outlets, and can occasionally be heard on Red Card Sports Radio.