Lauded as one of the best players in the world at the moment, it is obvious to see why coach Alejandro Sabella fits the team around his captain Lionel Messi. During qualifying in a difficult South American group, the Barcelona man notched 10 goals (just one behind Uruguay’s Luis Suarez) as Argentina topped the group by two points. Since debuting at the World Cup in the 2006 competition, he has failed to make a mark, with just one goal in eight previous appearances. This barren run of 623 minutes without scoring at this event was finally ended in the opening game with a 2-1 victory over Bosnia-Hercegovina, thanks to a stunning individual effort. The winning strike fully illustrated the 26-year-old’s strengths as he cut in from the right-hand side with the ball seemingly glued to his left foot before curling a shot in off the post. Despite acknowledging his talismanic striker’s undoubted class, Sabella has found it challenging to find a balance between a dearth of attacking talent and defensive insecurity. Using a 3-5-2 formation against Bosnia backfired as the Argentines struggled to break down opponents prepared to sit deep and stifle them – much like what they will come up against tonight. In the pre-match build up, Messi admitted that this approach made them “suffer a bit” and a switch to his favoured 4-3-3 will be implemented. Alongside him will be Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain and international goals aren’t in short supply as the trio have notched a combined total of 80 between them – in just 176 appearances. Despite a frustrating afternoon where they struggled to create clear-cut chances, a moment of quality from Messi would prove to be the difference. In a rare lapse of concentration from a disciplined Iranian side, he curled home a stunning effort to extend his tally to 40 international goals and make it eight goals in his last seven appearances. It’s fair to say that this moment summed up why Sabella values his talent as the key component of their success – both at this tournament and beyond.
After confirming that he will stand down as Iran coach at the end of this tournament, much of the focus will be on whether Carlos Queiroz can mastermind their progression to the knockout stages. The Mozambique-born coach has long bemoaned a lack of financial support for the team – which he has cited as the reason for his departure. Following a goalless draw against Nigeria, the Iranians cannot be eliminated on the back of the result in this game, which was held at Belo Horizonte. On the 16th anniversary of their only victory in 10 attempts at a World Cup – against USA in 1998 – former Manchester United assistant Queiroz is aiming to write another chapter into the nation’s footballing history. The defensive tactics employed in the opening game helped to secure a first-ever clean sheet in this tournament and this well-drilled approach may cause problems for their opponents. They cannot be lauded as one trick ponies though as the Iranians have the ability to threaten going forward. Fulham’s Ashkan Dejagah is the main hub of their attacking movements as he looks to provide good service to lone striker Reza Ghoochannejhad, who plies his trade at Charlton Athletic. Both players proved to be useful in this fixture as Dejagah showed an ability to contribute at both ends with a tireless display and Ghoochannejhad was unlucky not to get his name on the scoresheet. Despite being denied another famous result, the 61-year-old can be delighted with the way that his side have performed against strong opposition.
Despite having a dearth of talent and there always being high hopes of how they will perform on the biggest stage, the Argentines have failed to live up to the hype in recent years. In three of the last four tournaments, La Albiceleste have been knocked out at the quarter-final stage – with Netherlands and Germany (twice) accounting for their departure. There are hopes that they could live up to these expectations this time around though as on paper they have a favourable draw in both the second round and last eight stages. Potential opponents for these fixtures include Ecuador, Switzerland and Belgium and while these sides have players who could cause trouble, confidence is high that they could leave an indelible mark on this tournament. With the possibility of a first triumph since 1986 dominating the thoughts of their fans, Argentina will be hoping that they can shake of the disappointments of tournaments past.
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