Lionel Messi Cannot Be Stuttering Argentina's Only World Cup Plan B

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Lionel Messi Cannot Be Stuttering Argentina's Only World Cup Plan B
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Watching the game at home in Villa Crespo, Buenos Aires, there seemed to be a slight confusion as Argentina's desperately tight clash with Iran moved into injury time deadlocked at 0-0. The screen showed Lionel Messi slowly advancing on the implacable red defence, a sea of shirts ready to once more frustrate the Barcelona star. 

The neighbourhood, however, was already exploding in screams of delight. A small lag in transmission had only delayed the inevitable for a fraction of a second, as a brilliant curling shot eluded Alireza Haghighi's desperate dive, nestling in the corner of the net and giving Leo his second goal of the 2014 World Cup. 

Eduardo Di Baia/Associated Press

Once more, Messi's individual brilliance had pulled Argentina out of their footballing malaise. Over in Belo Horizonte, thousands of supporters decked in the Albiceleste refused to leave the stadium. It was almost as if those present had to take in every moment at the Mineirao. Leaving now, one felt, the incredible end to a mediocre match for Alejandro Sabella's men would be mere fiction, a dream conclusion to a starkly disappointing 90 minutes. 

"Having Messi, anything is possible," the coach told pitchside reporters from TyC Sports after the ecstasy of his captain's strike. But the hour and a half that preceded La Pulga's magic did not make happy watching for a nation desperate for glory in Brazil. 

Argentina's starting tactics depend on two key factors: the brilliant talents of Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria to fire a 4-3-3 setup that leans heavily on the counter; the other, the willingness of the opponent to push forward and leave holes to be exploited. 

But Iran, coached by the resolute Carlos Queiroz, were not prepared to play to the Albiceleste's whims. The Middle Eastern nation set out their stall from the beginning, defending with up to eight or nine men in and around the box. The message was clear to their illustrious rival: If you want the win, come and get it. 

For much of the match, it appeared that Argentina did not desire the victory. Deprived of velocity in attack, their approaches on Haghighi were laboured and clumsy. Messi was starved of space, as was Higuain, although the Napoli man looked the most likely to cause damage, seeing a one-on-one saved in the first half before coming off for Rodrigo Palacio.

Di Maria and Aguero, meanwhile, will have every reason to be disappointed with their performance in the Mineirao. The pair did not show the creativity and invention necessary to break open a solid defence, with too many passes going astray and too many crosses flying over the heads of those in the box. 

In the second half, before Messi intervened with another majestic goal for the collection, there appeared a real danger of Iran taking a victory nobody had believed possible. If not for a brilliant save from Sergio Romero, proving his critics wrong in Brazil, a defeat could have precipitated a real crisis for one of the pre-World Cup favourites.

Sabella picked his squad with one style of play in mind. The more cerebral talents, men such as Javier Pastore, Ever Banega, Esteban Cambiasso, even the ageing but still dangerous Juan Roman Riquelme, were overlooked in favour of rapid footballers who are more adept at breaking through defences by force. 

When it works, as we saw time and again during qualifying, the system can be a thing of beauty. But when the juggernaut breaks down, there is nobody on the pitch who can put a foot on the ball, weigh the options and unlock the defence through subtlety and patience. 

With two goals in the opening matches, Messi is proving that he will not wilt under the pressure of a nation. But it is unfair to expect the Barcelona genius to provide the spark in every game. Argentina need to find a plan B, and fast, as results cannot always revolve around the magic left foot of their captain and standard-bearer. 

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Argentina (National Football)

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