Belo Horizonte, Brazil (SportsNetwork.com) - Lionel Messi staged some late heroics at the Estadio Mineirao on Saturday, scoring in the first minute of stoppage time to rescue Argentina in a 1-0 defeat of Iran.
Iran put up a valiant effort and came close to taking a shock lead on several occasions, but Messi's individual moment of brilliance late in the contest proved to be the difference between the two nations.
Argentina, which opened the tournament with a 2-1 defeat of Bosnia- Herzegovina, improves to six points top remain atop Group F and book a spot in the knockout round for the third straight World Cup.
"It was very difficult. We had the possession and the control in the first half and we created three clear-cut chances and had a few dead-ball situations too," Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella said after the match. "Iran played a great game. They defended deep and hit us on the counter, creating some good chances. We were tired at the end after exerting so much energy, and it became an end-to-end match, which didn't suit us. Fortunately for us (Sergio) Romero was up to the job. I made the changes to try and open the pitch up and create some space for us. We have to have a good look at what happened and try to improve. We have a few causes for concern."
La Albiceleste had the better of play in the first half, but a compact Iranian formation limited the South American nation to few clear-cut scoring opportunities.
Argentina came close to opening the scoring in the 13th minute when Fernando Gago picked out Gonzalo Higuain with a brilliant through ball, but Alireza Haghighi was arriving to deny the Napoli striker before he could turn and shoot.
In the 22nd minute, Sergio Aguero took a layoff from Higuain and curled a right-footed shot that looked destined for the far corner of the net, but Haghighi was able to push the effort wide of the goal to keep Argentina scoreless.
A pair of first-half set pieces nearly saw Sabella's men take the lead as Marcos Rojo met a corner kick from Angel Di Maria in the 24th minute but sent his header just inches wide of the post.
Ezequiel Garay then came close in the 36th minute when he got on the end of Messi's free kick, but the Benfica defender put his header just over the crossbar from close range.
Iran made a bright start to the second half and asked a big question of Romero in the 53rd minute when Reza Ghoochannejhad put a powerful header on frame, but the Monaco 'keeper was equal to the task, blocking the attempt to prevent Argentina from falling behind.
Messi finally got going just before the hour mark when he ran at the Iranian defense and curled a shot toward goal, but his effort went just inches wide of the left post.
But Iran's best chance of the match fell to Ashkan Dejagah in the 67th minute when he got on the end of a dangerous cross to the center of the box and directed a header on goal, but Romero managed to get to the effort and tip it over the crossbar.
The match opened up in the final stages with both sides pushing for a winner.
Haghighi was called into action in the 84th minute when Rodrigo Palacio's header was turned toward goal. The Iran 'keeper managed to push the attempt wide to keep Argentina at bay.
One minute later, Romero was forced to make another key stop as Ghoochannejhad was clear on goal, but the Charlton Athletic man was denied by the Argentina 'keeper.
Iran was ultimately left to rue its missed chances as Messi popped up with a vital winner in the first minute of stoppage time.
The Barcelona man took a square pass from Ezequiel Lavezzi and eluded a defender before curling an inch-perfect shot with his left foot that nestled just inside Haghighi's far post.
It was a cruel end to a heroic performance from Iran, which must regroup in time for its Group F finale against Bosnia-Herzegovina on Wednesday.
"I'm proud of my players because we competed for the whole 90 minutes," Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said. "The game panned out just as we expected: Argentina had control of the ball and Iran were organized in defense, disciplined and very focused. We tried to deny them space when they attacked, but then I put two strikers on because we wanted to win and you have to take risks if you want to do that. If we'd scored, we would probably have made life harder for Argentina. The fact is, though, that Messi can change games just like that. He kept looking and looking and in the end he got his reward."