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World Cup: Glimpses of encouragement amid the toil for Argentina in the shape of Lionel Messi and Angel Di Maria
Matthew Stanger watched Argentina struggle against Iran in Belo Horizonte but saw glimpses from Messi and Di Maria to suggest they could find form in time for the knockout stages...
Last Updated: 23/06/14 11:35am
A moment of routine brilliance from Lionel Messi eventually settled Argentina's arduous battle with Iran, but this was another unconvincing display from Alejandro Sabella's side.
There was a feeling of relief in the press conference after qualification for the last 16 was secured with a scrappy 1-0 win, but both Messi and Sabella acknowledged that improvement is required. "We know we're not playing as well as expected," said Messi. "But still, we will keep preparing and try to improve the mistakes we have made." Unless that is achieved in the next week, Argentina can expect to be eliminated by the first genuine contender they meet.
As in the second half of the victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina, Messi must have felt vindicated in requesting - or demanding - that Argentina play in a 4-3-3 system in the first 45 minutes against Iran. Carlos Quieroz's team sat deep and packed the defence to make life difficult for their opponents, but chances for Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria suggested it would only be a matter of time until Argentina made the decisive breakthrough - an opinion shared by Messi as he collected his man of the match award.
Di Maria, in particular, impressed in a first half of one-way traffic. From his position on the left of a midfield three, the Real Madrid star surged forward to find gaps in the Iranian backline and create opportunities for his teammates. Compared to a strolling Messi, who later admitted he struggled with the heat, Di Maria was a real bundle of energy. As he pressed and probed the left flank with purpose, it became clear that Messi's favoured 4-3-3 formation hinges greatly on the 26-year-old's contribution.
Required to adapt
Di Maria is well-versed in this system after being required to adapt to a similar role under Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid. Despite dropping back behind the three forwards following Gareth Bale's arrival at the Santiago Bernabeu, he still provided 17 assists in La Liga - four more than any other player and 11 more than his tally in the previous season - as well as an outstanding performance in the Champions League final. Before Ancelotti's appointment, Di Maria was regarded as something of a luxury, but he has readily embraced his new responsibilities to become a crucial cog for both club and country. An Angel with dirty laces, if you will.
The second half didn't bring the comfort that Messi and Argentina's noisy support had expected. Both the talisman and Di Maria were closely marked by Iran's resilient defence, with space quickly sucked away in the stifling sunshine. "It was a difficult game, difficult for us to find spaces. It was very hot as well," said Messi. "Both me and Di Maria couldn't create spaces. I don't think they were marking just me."
Although Iran mounted several impressive counter-attacks as the game became stretched in the final half-hour, there is a sense that Argentina's 4-3-3 formation stands a greater chance of success against opponents with more invention. "I think Bosnia play more attacking while Iran, at least from what I've seen, is more prepared to defend and counter-attack. Messi was marked all the time. Iran had many people on Messi," said Sabella. "This sort of thing (a laboured display) can happen. It shouldn't, but it does. Of course we all want Argentina to win, so we will try to strike a balance which is not easy."
The first two games have emphasised the difficulty of the task Sabella is facing. However, with Di Maria central to Argentina's approach, and Messi in the mood for moments of genius, there is hope that speedy progress can be made. Argentina have two more matches - against Nigeria and probably Switzerland in the second round - to get it right. They should stick with a system that produced convincing results in qualifying and that gets the best out of their top two performers as they prepare for tougher battles ahead.