Argentina 1 – 0 Iran
My fears that Iran would essentially be a New Zealand-like team – coming to the World Cup only to play for draws and nothing else – seemed realised in the first half here, as the immense attacking talents of Argentina met a brick wall of defenders over and over again.
The Iranians had their shape, their defensive cohesion and their purpose of keeping the Argentineans out, and for so much of the game that plan worked. The individual stars like Aguero, Higuain and Messi seemed unable to do anything of substance to break Iran down, and spent 90 or so minutes passing around midfield, working the ball to the flanks and planting crosses to Iranian heads. When things weren’t working, Roja and Zabaleta were also sweeping forward to join the attack, and still nothing was happening.
Pooladi and Nekounam were rock solid at the heart of the Iranian defence, and when they didn’t prove enough Hagighi enjoyed a fine game between the post denying Higuain and Aguero multiple times in the first half. They didn’t adventure forward much and were quick to get men – all of them – behind the ball when it was called for. It made for ugly football.
Argentina went in at the break frustrated, and things got worse when the second began. Suddenly Iran had decided to actually try and win the game, and came alarming close through efforts by Shojaei, meeting fine crosses at the end of very creative moves, only the fingertips of Romero keeping Argentina at level pegging.
Iran were chancing their arm on the counter and remaining firm when not on the ball. Again and again the Argentineans would swing the ball in, and again and again the Iranians would collect or clear. Free kicks failed to get on target, and what Hagighi did have to deal with directly did not trouble him too unduly.
The game wound down with the favourites increasingly exasperated, but they crucially moved faster and clearly had the greater fitness levels – many Iranians seemed dead on their feet with ten minutes to play. Messi kept beating men and the freshness of Palacio also caused continuing problems for the tiring Iranians. They had one last chance to win the game, with Ghoochannejhad’s effort saved marvellously by Romero. Matches turn on such moments, and it was left for Messi to provide another example of both his immense striking ability and his “clutch” play, to borrow an American sports term, a great curling effort to win the game at the death.
Devastating for the Iranians, who somehow managed to put on a defensive showpiece while never really being that boring, at least in the second half. They deserved something from the game, but can comfort themselves with the knowledge they are still in it. Argentina go through, but were unconvincing through large stretches.
Germany 2 – 2 Ghana
Ghana desperately needed a win, and Germany came into the game with much confidence after that victory over Portugal. An intriguing tie then, that offered up a great second half.
Things were even enough in the first, Germany taking a while before they really got into the swing of things. Ghana maintained long periods of possession dominance, and on a few occasions had Neuer scrambling to save in the German net. But the chances came to nought and Germany asserted themselves, the potent attacking combination of Ozil, Muller, Gotze and Khedira nothing to be scoffed at. They could well be seen as the real favourite to win the tournament now, and wanted to prove it.
But the chances never really came properly in the first, both teams getting better defensively as the game went on, and both teams frequently failing with their final ball. Both teams were throwing themselves into the affair with gusto, but with just no firm end product.
But the game exploded into life in the second half. Muller’s pinpoint cross found Gotze between two defenders, and the Germans had the lead. Under pressure as they had been against the United States, Ghana responded more positively this time, and were level only a few minutes later. It wasn’t that different from the opener, with Afful’s right hand cross converted by the lively looking Ayew. Now flushed with confidence, Ghana pressed on and found the lead, Lahm’s error allowing Muntari to place a wonderfully precise through ball to Gyan, who finished strongly.
Germany had been complacent after taking the lead, sitting back and allowing Ghana to set the pace. This now changed, and the introduction of the experienced Klose had an immediate effect. Germany went back to their attacking expertise and Klose levelled with his first touch from a corner.
Germany were the ones looking confident now and sought the win, but a well organised defensive display, with Mensah and Ayew at the heart of it. They attacked when they could, Atsu and Gyan with half chances to win it for the Africans, but the game fizzled out in the dying moments with neither team willing to risk it all to get the three points.
Ghana keep their hopes alive, needing to get a win against an iffy Portugal to progress. Germany will have to handle the unpredictable Americans to secure their passage. Both tasks are perfectly possible. Ghana have showed their quality, and Germany will always be dangerous.
Nigeria 1 – 0 Bosnia and Herzegovina
A big night for both teams, a win badly required on either side of the divide. Nigeria started much the better, with Musa establishing himself as a deadly threat down the right hand side, setting up several chances in the early minutes. Bosnia and Herzegovina took 15 minutes to really get into the game, and could thank a certain lack of composure in the Nigerians forwards for the fact that the game was still level.
When the Balkan side did get going in attack they looked very good. Dzeko was getting involved in a way that he just hadn’t against Argentina, and should have put his team one up on 21 minutes, only for his effort to be incorrectly ruled out for offside. Pjanic was next to have a go, Enyeama doing well to palm it over.
When the goal came, it was inevitable that Bosnia and Herzegovina’s left back position would be at fault. Having a torrid time up to that point, Spahic was easily outmuscled and outpaced by the oncoming Emenike, who passed smartly to Odemwingie for the finish. Spahic complained bitterly, but was simply outdone by the Nigerian attacker, as he would be again and again in the game.
One nil, and Nigeria controlled the pace for the next few minutes without creating any real chances of note. When Bosnia and Herzegovina finally did reassert themselves in the dying moment of the first they could only shoot wide from distance. Despite owning much of the midfield, the decision to work nearly everything through Dzeko was having mixed results.
Things slowed in the second half. Nigeria initially appeared to become more conservative, allowing Bosnia and Herzegovina the ball. Dzeko, despite the better rate of supply, couldn’t do anything with it, and it was Babatunde with the first real chance of the half, his blistering shot parried away by Begovic. From there Nigeria pressed on, with Onasi, Babatunde and Emenike all having shots in quick succession.
Bosnia and Herzegovina had rapidly run out of steam, failing to challenge Enyeama at all in the second half until Pjanic’s ineffective low drive with less than 15 minutes remaining. Nigeria could counter at their leisure and then absorb anything that came back at them. Dzeko had two glorious chances to equalise in the dying moment, but fluffed his lines both times.
Misimovic’s mishit effort in the final seconds was a summation of the Bosnia and Herzegovinian night: a sleepwalking effort. Despite the disgracefully disallowed goal, Nigeria were worthy winners. Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the basis of this game, have rapidly become one of the most disappointing sides in the competition. A fascinating enough final day of this group is now in store.