Brazilians are rightly proud of Belo Horizonte, one of this continental-scale nation’s most sedate and fragrant urban sprawls. It seemed fitting that the agreeably low-key stadium should produce one of the more thrilling 1-0 World Cup group-stage wins, a vibrant, densely plotted victory for Argentina against Iran that seemed to raise more questions than it answered.
Argentina will be pleased to have qualified from group F at the earliest opportunity, and cheered by the spectacle of Lionel Messi’s superbly taken winning goal, his second in succession in this tournament. And yet they struggled at times, despite having Alejandro Sabella’s most glitzy attacking 4-3-3 formation on the pitch from the start. In fact this match was a fine example of how the fast-breaking style of football at this World Cup bypasses the accepted registers of statistics-based football analysis that flourished in the previous mini-age of the possession game, the received wisdom that x amount of possession, plus y goal attempts proves that z were the better team.
In Belo Horizonte Argentina had 67% possession and 19 goal attempts to Iran’s seven. But for all that they could quite easily have lost a match in which Iran had the best chances of the second half, executed their gameplan more effectively and might have had a penalty had the referee had super-slow-mo cyborg vision, thereby allowing him to dissect properly Pablo Zabaleta’s marginal challenge on Ashkan Dejagah.
Argentina will now play Nigeria in Porto Alegre needing only a draw to top the group, which would mean the Albiceleste go on to face (probably) Ecuador or Switzerland, thereby avoiding France. It is an important detail: Argentina have looked an unbalanced team good enough to see off the second tier at this World Cup; but a team that has enough attacking brio lurking in its ranks to beat the best at least some of the time.
If there were concerns arising from victory here they are historic ones. Argentina’s midfield of Javier Mascherano, Fernando Gago and Ángel Di María looked to have too much to do, with Mascherano both directing the play and filling the gaps. The full-backs were not sure whether to stick or twist and were somehow simultaneously caught out going forward and staying back too much. And yet this is perhaps the way of this team, with its split formation – too often a kind of 4-0-6 – and its weight toward the attacking end of things.
If Argentina can squeeze past relatively friendly opponents in the last 16 they will be three more Messi winning goals from becoming world champions. And nobody who has paid serious attention to Rosario-by-Catalonia’s scuttling genius of a No10 would rule out a Messi winning goal against any team on any pitch in any competition.
As for Iran they gained plenty of hearts in Belo Horizonte. The combination of a large football-daffy population, the tactical hand of Carlos Queiroz and the mining of Iran’s footballing diaspora have produced a skilled and passionate team. Dejagah, who played for Germany Under-21s alongside Manuel Neuer, Sami Khedira, Mesut Özil and Mats Hummels, provides a high-speed cutting edge to a team that will feel hard done by to have only one point so far.
With Bosnia-Herzegovina already out of the World Cup, Iran have the qualities to reach the second round for the first time.