By Andrew Cawthorne
BELO HORIZONTE Brazil (Reuters) - Lionel Messi saved Argentina's blushes with a brilliant curling stoppage time winner against unheralded Iran at the World Cup on Saturday to give the South Americans a 1-0 victory and send them into the last 16.
Argentina's fabled "Fab Four" strike force had appeared heading for a blank at the Mineirao stadium despite dominating possession to the frustration of their massed ranks of fans who came expecting a goalfest at Belo Horizonte's Mineirao stadium.
But four-times world player of the year Messi curled the ball in during stoppage time to send them wild with only his third ever World Cup goal.
"In the first half we had four or five clear chances to score. In the second half, they made life hard for us with their counter attacks. But with Messi, everything is possible," said relieved Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella.
The result gives Argentina six points from two games and takes them into the knockout stage. But they will need more guile and precision against better opponents.
Iran, on just one point after a draw with Nigeria, will at least take heart from a fantastic performance against one of the favorites to lift the trophy.
Constantly crowded out by two and sometimes three Iranians, Messi had until the end been unable to pull the strings and again vomited on the pitch in the first half. The Argentine captain put two free kicks wide in either half, and saw a shot go wide after a trademark run early in the second.
In a succession of wasted Argentine first half chances, Gonzalo Higuain was quickly shut down by goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi in a one-on-one in the 13th minute, Angel Di Maria shot over the bar and Sergio Aguero had a curling shot well saved.
Marcos Rojo and Ezequiel Garay put headers off target.
IRAN CLOSE TO SCORING
With their increasingly hopeful supporters heavily outnumbered but cheering "Ole, ole, Iran!", Asia's highest-ranked team defended en masse but also enjoyed some forays forward that could have caused a sensational result.
"At the end, two personalities in the game made the difference. The number one was the referee. The second was Lionel Messi," said a bitterly disappointed coach Carlos Queiroz, claiming crucial decisions went against his side.
Queiroz was unhappy that a second half penalty claim was denied when Ashkan Dejagah was challenged by Pablo Zabaleta although the Argentina defender appeared to make contact with the ball.
Sensing an upset might be possible at 0-0, Iran were bolder in the second half. Lone striker Reza Ghoochannejhad broke free in the 53rd minute but shot at Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero before Ashkan Dejagah saw a strong header tipped over.
Then Ghoochannejhad got behind the Argentine defense in the 86th minute but saw his shot again well saved by Romero.
With the misfiring Aguero and Higuain pulled off in the second half, replacements Ezequiel Lavezzi and Rodrigo Palacio were unable to provide the missing spark - until Messi did.
"We were nervous," Argentine goalkeeper Romero said. "We need to be a bit calmer against Nigeria and play better."
(Additional reporting by Luis Ampuero and Karolos Grohmann in Belo Horizonte, William Schomberg in Sao Paulo)