By Michael Place
BELO HORIZONTE, June 21 (Xinhua) -- Lionel Messi struck a stunning late goal to break Iranian hearts and earn Argentina a barely deserved 1-0 victory in their Group F clash here on Saturday.
The Barcelona forward, who had been subdued for most of the match, curled a wicked left-footed shot around Iran's defence and into the top left corner in second-half stoppage time.
It was a painful blow for Iran, who had several chances to secure victory despite being written off by almost everybody before the match.
The result virtually guarantees Argentina's passage to the second round while Iran must win their final match against Bosnia-Herzegovina to have any chance of progressing beyond the group stage.
Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella praised Messi's brilliance, but bemoaned his team's inability to score in the first half.
"We had four or five clear chances to score a goal and in the second half they complicated things for us with counterattacks," Sabella said. "But having Messi resolved everything."
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz entered the fixture with a clear plan to deprive Argentina's forwards of space at the Mineirao stadium. And his players carried it out to near perfection.
While Argentina dominated possession, Iran often looked more likely to score on the counterattack. If not for Albiceleste goalkeeper Sergio Romero, who twice denied striker Reza Ghoochannejhad in the second half, the result would almost certainly have been different.
Before the match Messi made headlines for saying he preferred a 4-3-3 formation to the 5-3-2 adopted by Argentina in their World Cup opener against Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Sabella appeared to take the hint. He handed Gonzalo Higuain a starting berth in attack alongside Messi and Sergio Aguero while leaving Inter Milan defender Hugo Campagnaro on the bench.
Fernando Gago was also given a spot on the right of midfield in place Maxi Rodriguez.
As expected, Argentina took control in the opening minutes.
Aguero had a dipping shot parried away by goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi while Angel Di Maria wasted a golden chance when his attempt was blocked by Amirhossein Sadeghi after bursting into the area.
Messi struggled to make any meaningful impact early. His most telling contribution in the first half was a freekick that Ezequiel Garay failed to keep down with his header.
Iran's only clear chance came just before halftime when Jalal Hosseini nodded over the bar from a corner kick.
The Albiceleste's frustration grew and Iran almost took the lead with a stunning counter-attack five minutes after the restart.
Masoud Shojaei broke down the right before crossing to Ghoochannejhad, whose header was saved by Romero.
The chance seemed to spring Argentina to life.
Messi responded with a probing run and thumping shot from the edge of the area that flew narrowly wide.
But Iran were not to be outdone and looked more enterprising as the match progressed.
Argentina again had Romero to thank just after the hour when the keeper tipped over an Ashkan Dejagah header.
Desperate for a spark in attack, Sabella made a double change in the 75th minute; Rodrigo Palacio came on for Higuain while Ezequiel Lavezzi replaced Aguero.
But Iran were irrepressible. Romero came to the rescue once more when he palmed away another Ghoochannejhad shot five minutes from time.
Then came Messi's moment. After an eight-year World Cup goal drought, the 26-year-old has now scored twice in as many matches in Brazil.