FC Barçelona On My Mind

Segun at Wembley

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (March 2nd 2015)

Fan

I guess every reader of this column knows by now that I am a fan of FC Barçelona. I love the team because, like me, they are football purists, always winning by playing the better football, cleanly, clearly, and on the field – never in the boardroom. In the past decade, it is hard to find many lovers of football that have not been captivated by the club’s achievements, its football brand and philosophy, its youth academy and its very exceptionally gifted players.

Without question, FC Barçelona have been the team of the 21st Century, winning the world’s most coveted club trophy three times since 2000, getting to the semi-finals six times, and the quarter finals twice. Compare this to Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, which have won it twice each in that period, although, under José Mourinho, Real Madrid had a semi-final hoodoo, broken by Carlo Ancelotti winning the historic ʻLa Décimaʼ last season against cross-town rivals Atlético de Madrid.

Nevertheless, to the chagrin of Realʼs supporters, there is no question of who has played the better football and been more successful this century. It is clearly the Camp Nouʼs finest. This century the world has been treated to a brand of football that had never been seen previously in the history of the game.

The Blueprint

Tiki-Taka was a deliberate style of football conceived in Barçelona’s youth academy, complimented by acquiring some of the best players in the world – but many of Barçelona’s young players, not only held their own in élite company, they went on to play for Spain and made them World Champions for the first time in their history and the only nation to win and retain the European Championship.

Tiki-Taka became an art exhibition on display every week and everywhere FC Barçelona played. The team taught the rest of the world the ultimate art of ball possession, the quick one-two passing and movements, the short interchange of passes, back and forth and sideways, the players running and pressing when they lose possession, and maintaining a fluid but intricate organised pattern of movements all the time like a well-oiled machine.

With this style of play the team simply ran rings around most opposing teams. They were a delight to watch, even though critics of their style began to describe them as boring and rather monotonous. In the past decade, particularly, the ultimate challenge for European club managers was how to decode the team’s play. In the past three years a few have succeeded.

Real Madrid and Atlético de Madrid in Spain and Bayern Munich in Germany discovered the antidote and reduced Barçaʼs impact and dominance. FC Barçelona needed to do something different to compete to win the UEFA Championsʼ League again.

The New Era

As great players aged – not even Barçelona have discovered the elixir of perpetual youth – a new style was needed too. Barçelonaʼs captain supreme Xavi Hernández i Creus doesnʼt play so much now, but Andrés Iniesta Lujáremains an integral part of the new machine.

I have just watched Barçelona FC take Manchester City FC to the cleaners in the first leg of the round of 16. It was a very emphatic and comprehensive performance that captured the essence of a ‘new’ FC Barçelona.

What is clear is that Tiki-Taka has been dismantled and is metamorphosing into something new, something less dramatic but, potentially more exciting and more deadly when the ‘concoction’ fully matures!

The old Barça played with 7 or more midfield players without a permanent striker upfront. Now, from outside the influence of the Barçelona youth academy, the team has been experimenting with new players for two seasons. FC Barçelona may have returned to the conventional style of European club football but they have created a new headache for European club managers.

The price that Barça have had to pay for this new formation is a midfield and defence that now look less compact with more open spaces for opposing teams to play. FC Barçelona are no less exciting than they once were, are less patient in attack than they once were, are less dominant in ball possession than they were previously, and less imposing on opposing teams than they once were. But for everything that they now are in deficit over, they make up for it with a striking partnership of three of the best goal scorers on the planet in their team!

In Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior (Neymar), Luis Suárez Díaz and Lionel Messi Cuccittini, FC Barçelona now have a dream attacking formation almost unmatched by any other team with the exception of Real Madrid.

Questions

Having said all of that the question now arises: can the new FC Barçelona win the 2014/2015 UEFA Champions League? I run a betting shop so I know a good wager when I see one. This one is not. I will not put my money on FC Barçelona winning the Champions League this season.

Do not get me wrong. With a little bit of luck they can win it but the chances of that happening, in my humble estimation, are slim. Looking at how they have been playing this season, with Tiki-Taka dismantled, and a new style still developing, it may require the experience of one more season for the emerging philosophy to take a firm hold and make them champions once again.

Lionel Messi – Back and Better

Lionel Messi’s lethargic performance at the World Cup cost him a great deal. All he needed to do was alter his mindset and commit one hundred percent to the cause and lead Argentina to win the World Cup. That feat would have earned him the highest honour in the history of football – the best footballer that ever lived.

But something happened to him during the World Cup that I still cannot fathom. He did not play with the spirit of one that wanted to win very badly. He ‘strolled’ through the matches, and even got to the final playing without conviction and fire in the eyes. When Argentina lost Messi lost even more.

As a result, no one raised an eyebrow or complained when a few months later the hard-working, but obviously less talented Cristiano Ronaldo stole the show again and took away the crown of World’s best player from him again. Ronaldo thoroughly deserved it and it appeared as if the spirit to win had left Messi.

Now here comes a new season and suddenly, for the first time in a long while, Barçelona FC and Messi are back. Lionel Messi is playing spiritedly again. It is quite apparent in the way he plays these days, chasing and running around, joining in defending when his team loses possession, getting involved more than ever before during play, and playing his team from the front through physical effort.

It reminds me of the Messi of the early days of his career. He anchored Barçelona FC’s unique brand of football that dominated world football in the past decade. At that time there was no disputing the fact that in Barçelona and Messi the world had the best team and the best player respectively.

For Lionel Messi there is no doubt in my mind that he is the greatest to have ever played football. He may not have the complete range of skills like Pelé, or almost singled-handedly led his country to win the World Cup like Maradona, but in terms of sheer natural ability and affinity with the ball at his feet, there has never been a better player.

There is a magnetic relationship between his left foot and the ball that makes him do almost anything with it at will, almost effortlessly. It is hard to put into words his ease and comfort on the ball, his dribbling ability even in the tightest of corners, how he wriggles between defenders, how he rides tackles, how he glides and races past defenders, how he makes difficult shots look so easy, how he makes goal scoring a habit.

From what I have seen of Messi this current season, if all goes well and he remains injury free, he is set to extend his grip on world football. He will likely win the World’s best player award again for an unassailable 5th time. And probably the world will now accept, as I have claimed over and over again, that there has been no player like Lionel Messi in the history of football!

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Wales Stays Top

by Satish Sekar at the Cardiff City Stadium © Satish Sekar (October 18th 2014)

The Dragons Deliver

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A sublime team goal finished off by Readingʼs Hal Robson-Kanu was the winner as Wales – reduced to ten men early in the second half – held on to beat Cyprus 2-1 in Cardiff tonight. A first minute injury forced Simon Church from the pitch. He was eventually replaced by Cardiff Cityʼs David Cotterill. It proved to be an inspired substitution by Walesʼ manager Chris Coleman.

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With 12 minutes gone Cotterrillʼs cross from the left flank eluded everyone. There is a reason that APOELʼs keeper Tasos Kissas is not Pambos Christodoulouʼs first choice. If there was any doubt it was removed by an absolutely awful performance between the sticks. He spilled far more than he held, or even parried and almost deserved an assist on Cotterillʼs goal, failing to make any contact. To his embarrassment it went straight in.

If the first had traces of the ridiculous, the second was superb – a goal worthy of winning any match. It began deep in Welsh territory with skipper Ashley Williams finding Andy King in space. Kingʼs pass to Gareth Bale was flicked on exquisitely by the worldʼs most expensive footballer for Robson-Kanu to latch onto and shoot between Kissasʼ legs midway through the first half.

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Errors

Wales dominated play, but an uncharacteristic blunder by Crystal Palaceʼs Wayne Hennessey after 36 minutes brought the Cypriots back into the game. Vincent Labanʼs free-kick from the right wing had echoes of Cotterillʼs goal, although Labanʼs effort went in off Hennesseyʼs hand. It also had a small dose of irony as it was Cotterillʼs challenge that gave the free-kick away.

Meanwhile, some rustic Cypriot challenges, especially on Bale were going unpunished. Cards were brandished, but Bale was denied protection. Four years earlier Wayne Rooney blasted the refereeʼs performance in Englandʼs match against Montenegro. He claimed that the German referee Manuel Gräfe failed to protect players from ʻagriculturalʼ challenges. It was a similar story tonight as Gräfe refused to protect Bale adequately. Coleman wasnʼt aware of the precedent, but he didnʼt seem surprised when we informed him about it.

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Within three minutes of the restart a poorly timed challenge by Andy King on Cyprusʼ captain Constantinos Makridis gave Gräfe the opportunity to brandish a red card. Bale protested vociferously and Gräfe booked him. It made for a nervy second half. It was far from pretty football, but it was effective and the points were the priority – mission accomplished.

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Inconsistent”, was Williamsʼ one-word summary of Gräfeʼs refereeing tonight. Coleman went further. “The referee”? Coleman said. “Iʼm not going to … Iʼm disappointed, not because Gareth Bale is our star player, but he needs – players need protection. The Cypriot players need protection if weʼre going to go in heavy. The refereeʼs there to say that, but thatʼs not happening and vice versa, but we never felt that we got enough protection, no”.

Coleman went further. “I think players like Bale, Messi and Ronaldo, more often than not, theyʼre in possession, theyʼre running into trouble,” he said. “If youʼre going to get kicked and youʼre expecting to get kicked, thatʼs football, but the refereeʼs there to make sure that people are punished and if theyʼre not being punished – if too many things are going to be left alone – then the defenderʼs going to come back and do the same thing more and more if heʼs not being punished, so that shouldnʼt happen”.

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Cometh the Hour

Not since the heady days of Gary Speedʼs reign as Wales manager have team and fans shared such belief that the Dragons will qualify for the finals of a major tournament again. His legacy is in tact. After a difficult start Coleman clearly has his players playing for him and wanting to represent Wales.

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Wales remain top of Group B. Andorra remain rooted to the bottom, but the nature of their pitch and tactics mean they are harder to beat than many expected. Despite their heroics at the World Cup Safet Sušićʼs Bosnia-Herzegovina are under-achieving. Belgium on four points have a game in hand against Israel, who are in second place to Wales a point behind with a game in hand and Cyprus have three, but have now lost to both Israel and Wales.

While everyone expected Belgium to win the group, the battle for qualification is proving far more open than expected. Before playing Wales, Cypriot manager Christodoulou offered these prophetic words. “I think Belgium is a very strong team and favourite for the first place of the group”, he said. “The rest of the teams will fight for the second and third place. With the results we have seen so far I think all the teams have the right to dream, have the right to fight for the second or third place in the group”.

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Coleman agrees it is an open group. “Weʼve said, letʼs get half way through the group and letʼs be up there – there or thereabouts to make sure we keep the excitement going, keep the public interested in it and weʼre doing that, you know, topping the group after three games”, he said. “Thatʼs good. Now weʼve got to go into the lionʼs den next month in Belgium. Iʼm looking forward to it. It will be a good game and weʼve got go there and get something and then players will relax after that, so itʼs all to play for”. An appointment with history appears within their grasp.

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Greatness

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 13th 2014)

Thrust upon Them

Make no mistake about this, Lionel Messi will go down in history as one of the greatest footballers ever to grace the beautiful game. That will happen whether he wins the World Cup or not. Johan Cruijff, Alfredo di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskás, Eusébio, Valentino and Alessandro Mazzola and many others never won the World Cup.

Does that mean they were not great players? Only to fools who know nothing about football. Nobody with any football knowledge would put Stéphane Guivarcʼh on the same plane as those mentioned above, even though he won the World Cup and they did not.

Legacy

Messiʼs legacy – win or lose today – is far from complete. Diego Maradona is credited with lifting a mediocre team on his shoulders all the way to glory in 1986. It certainly wasnʼt the greatest team ever to win the World Cup, but the supporting cast was contained some talented players too.

Jorge Valdano went on to play for Real Madrid and demonstrate administrative skills too. The former record holder for most caps for his country Oscar Ruggeri organised the defence. Ruggeri is recognised as the cog that made Argentinaʼs defence tick.

Former World Cup-winning captain Daniel Passarella, albeit an ageing Passarella, was in the squad too and Jorge Burruchaga was part of that team. Burruchaga tasted the delight of scoring in the World Cup Final and the shame of a ban for agreeing to a bribe in the infamous Valenciennes/Olympique Marseilles scandal, even though he never actually took the bribe.

Exceptional

While Maradona didnʼt have to do it alone – he had an impressive five goals and five assists – Messi has a higher calibre of team-mate. Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero, Javier Mascherano and Ángel di Maria to name but a few.

Messi is an exceptional talent – one of the greatest ever. Win or lose tonight, he still will be. However, winning the World Cup at the Estádio do Maracanã will make the entire team, especially national heroes and eclipse the horror of the Maracanazo with an even greater pain than Uruguay inflicted on Brasil 64 years ago or even the 7-1 humiliation by Germany in Belo Horizonte.

 

Argentina go through as Belgium is Found Wanting

 

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 5th 2014)

Higuaín Shines

Argentina reached the semi-final of Brasilʼs World Cup with an efficient 1-0 victory over Marc Wilmotsʼ young Belgium side making their first appearance in the World Cup Finals since 2002 courtesy of Gonzalo Higuaínʼs excellent 8th minute strike. The build up was fortunate – the finish masterful. After twisting and turning Lionel Messi fed Real Madridʼs Ángel di María on the right.

Di María tried to put Manchester Cityʼs Pablo Zabaleta through on the overlap and was fortunate that a massive deflection off Jan Vertonghen took it into the path of Higuaín. The Napoli striker deserves all the credit for the goal which turned out to be the historic winner. Higuaín had been distinctly underwhelming in the tournament previously.

This was his first goal – an instinctive shot to goal-keeper Thibaut Courtoisʼ right. The Belgian keeper who had never tasted defeat for his country until this afternoon could do nothing about it. It proved enough to set up a semi-final clash against either the Netherlands or surprise package Costa Rica who meet tonight. Higuaínʼs winner was the first time that Argentina had reached the semi-final in normal time since Diego Maradonaʼs prime.

Fear

It took Wilmotsʼ side over 40 minutes to fashion their best opportunity. Vertonghen was released on the left by Chelseaʼs Eden Hazard. His cross deserved a better header than Evertonʼs Kevin Mirallas provided. Sergio Romero was not required to make a save. Fifteen minutes earlier VfL Wolfsburgʼs Kevin de Bruyne at least forced Monacoʼs reserve goal-keeper Sergio Romero to make a save, but it was a long range effort that didnʼt seriously test the keeper. The rebound eluded Lille teenager Divock Origi – Romelu Lukaku remained on the bench despite finding form against the USA.

Di María was unable to continue after just over half an hour. He may be out of the tournament. Messi had yet to shine. After 38 minutes Messi was felled by Manchester United misfit Marouane Fellainiʼs persistent fouling. He picked himself up to take the free-kick, but Courtois, whose future will be resolved after the World Cup was not required to make a save.

Messi had a chance to put Belgium away in added time when put through by substitute Fernando Gago. With just Courtois to beat Messi tried to caress it past the La Liga winner with the outside of his foot, but Courtois saved well to keep Belgium in contention – just.

Officiating

Less than ten minutes into the second half the largely ineffective Hazard was fortunate that he only received a yellow card for a high tackle on Lazioʼs Lucas Biglia.

Two minutes later Enzo Pérez broke on the right wing before passing to Higuaín who blazed a trail through the Belgian defence, nutmegging Kompany before unleashing a powerful shot that not even Courtois could keep out. Fortunately for him it hit the crossbar and bounced over. Belgium had little choice, but to attack as time began to ebb. Fellaini headed Vertonghenʼs excellent cross over with an hour gone.

Shortly afterwards Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli initially gave a corner to Belgium, but after consulting his assistant changed his mind and gave a free-kick against Fellaini for fouling Ezequiel Garay. Despite this, Rizzoliʼs performance was a lesson for other referees as he kept control without showing undue leniency – apart from Hazardʼs offence – or it ever threatening to become a card-fest.

End-Game

Belgium had to press harder for an equaliser, but their attacks lacked quality. It wasnʼt until added time that they seriously threatened and even then Romero was not called into action. Their last attempt was also their best, but it came after Messi should have ended the small chance that they had.

In the centre of Argentinaʼs half Zenit Saint Petersburgʼs Axel Witsel found Mertens to his left. Mertens played it forward to Lukaku. The Chelsea striker squared it, but Garay snubbed out the danger and it eventually broke to Witsel who shot over from 23 yards. It was their last chance. Argentina were through to face either the Netherlands or surprise package Costa Rica.

It was the first time in almost a quarter of a century that Argentina had reached the semi-final of the World Cup in normal time.

 

Argentina Scrape Past Switzerland

 

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 1st 2014)

Late Show

Real Madridʼs Ángel di María Hernández had an awful match by his standards, missing chances and wasting possession several times, yet with just two minutes of extra time remaining he scored the winning goal. Lionel Messi was named man of the match, but did little to justify it. This was a poor match, although Ottmar Hitzfeldʼs tactics canʼt be faulted.

After being mauled by France, Hitzfeld chose to keep things tight and frustrate Messi and co. It almost worked. With less than three minutes of extra time remaining Rodrigo Palacio passed to Messi in the centre. He ran towards the area before slipping it to di María on the right. The Real Madrid man shot across the keeper to break Swiss hearts.

But they almost responded. Ricardo Rodríguez Arayaʼs corner found its way to Bayern Münchenʼs Xherdan Shaqiri on the other wing. Napoliʼs Blerim Džemailiʼs last minute header hit the post with Argentinaʼs keeper Sergio Romero beaten. It rebounded onto Džemailiʼs knee and went wide. Shortly afterwards with the Swiss keeper Diego Benaglio trying to find an equaliser di María tried an audacious effort from just inside his own half. It went just wide.

Poor

The first half had little to recommend it. Di María was repeatedly fouled. The shooting was wayward. Sergio Romero saved with his legs from Granit Xhaka after 25 minutes. Ten minutes later Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson decided that Xhakaʼs awful tackle on Ezequiel Lavezzi deserved a booking – it did.

Argentina lacked final product with di María losing possession almost 40 times in normal time, but Switzerlandʼs Josip Drmić wasted the best opportunity of the 90 minutes chipping a stranded Romero. He made such a hash of his lob that Romero caught easily. The keeper stood rooted in no-manʼs land. Drmić should have scored easily.

Switzerland invited Argentina to break them down – a task that should have been against ten men as two minutes into the second half Xhaka clattered di María. It should have been his second yellow card and therefore a red card, but Eriksson pulled play back to deny the advantage to Argentina without showing a card.

Argentina created chances for substitute Rodrigo Palacio almost as soon as he came on, but he headed wide. Higuaín had another off day. Di María was having a shocking game and Messi despite his skill could not find a way past Diego Benaglio, but for all his trick and a sumptuous volley that just cleared the bar with time running out he found the key to unlock a stubborn Swiss team with penalties looming.

Three minutes into the second half of extra time di María found his range drawing a tip over from Benaglio from his 20 yard effort. Argentina will play far better and lose, but Alejandro Sabella wonʼt care. His team are in the last eight without playing well or Messi scoring. Meanwhile, Hitzfeld has retired.

 

Messi Shines as Argentina Top Group

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 25th 2013)

The Messi Show

Inspired by the great Lionel Messi Argentina beat Nigeria 3-2 to match Colombiaʼs feat in topping their group. Within two minutes Messi opened the scoring, achieving something Iran and Bosnia-Herzegovina combined could not – beating the exceptionally gifted Super-Eaglesʼ goal-keeper Vincent Enyeama. Enyeama went two months without conceding a goal in Ligue Un. Just over a minute later CSKA Moscowʼs Ahmed Musa equalised. Michael Babatunde set him up for a splendid goal.

With almost the last kick of the first half Messiʼs second free-kick in quick succession restored Argentinaʼs lead. Up and over the wall it dipped sufficiently to beat Enyeama whose heroics had proved a formidable barrier to Argentinaʼs ambitions. Less than a minute into the second half Musa equalised again. Emmanuel Emenike got the assist.

The winner as it proved to be came shortly afterwards. Paris Saint-Germainʼs Ezequiel Lavezziʼs shot was saved by Enyeama at the expense of a corner. Lavezzi took the corner which glanced off Ezequiel Garay Gonzálezʼ head onto Marcos Rojoʼs knee and in, leaving Enyeama with no chance.

A Formidable Final Barrier

Lilleʼs keeper enhanced his growing reputation with a string of excellent saves. With less than ten minutes played Messi slotted it through for Gonzalo Higuaín, but Enyeama stayed big, forcing Higuaín wide enough to make him put his shot wide of the near post. With quarter of an hour played Sergio Agüeroʼs cross was claimed on the ground by Enyeama at his near post, preventing a tap-in.

Real Madridʼs Ángel di María Hernández had a wonderful match, orchestrating chances and testing Enyeama himself. Just under half an hour into the match di Maríaʼs 23 yard shot was tipped round the post by Enyeama. Chelseaʼs John Mikel Obi was caught in possession by Lavezzi and fouled him. Messiʼs 30 yard free-kick was acrobatically saved by Enyeama, but another free-kick was quickly conceded and Messi gave no chance with that one.

Resolved

Less than 5 minutes into the second half di Maríaʼs shot resulted in Enyeama saving at the expense of the corner that he was unlucky to concede from. Messi put Higuaín through with less than ten second half minutes played, but Enyeama saved again. With just over a quarter of an hour remaining Enyeama denied Lavezzi.

Nigeria contributed to an entertaining match. Efe Ambroseʼs effort hit the side-netting and the Super-Eagles, despite losing, showed how to play Argentina. The freak injury to Babatundeʼs arm notwithstanding, it was a good performance in a tournament that has been disappointing for the African nations. Iranʼs defeat by Bosnia-Herzegovina meant the defeat didnʼt matter.

After a string of first round failures Nigeria has reached the last 16. They will most likely play against France who play Ecuador tonight. Honduras and Switzerland still have hopes of qualifying as do Ecuador. It will take a freakish set of results to deny France a place in the last 16.

 

Messiʼs Late Goal Breaks Iranʼs Hearts

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 21st 2013)

The Late Show

Lionel Messiʼs 91st minute goal denied Carlos Queirozʼ Iran team a famous draw few would dispute their performance deserved. Alireza Haghighi had kept Argentina at bay when required. His defence had protected him well, confining the Barçelona star, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and the enterprising left-back Marcos Rojo to speculative efforts.

Ezekiel Garay should have settled Argentine nerves, but headed Messiʼs free-kick just over with less than ten minutes of the first half remaining. It was the best chance Messi and co had created in the first half. But it was hardly one way traffic either. Just before half time Fulhamʼs Askhan Dejagahʼs corner should have resulted in Iran taking a shock lead, but Jalal Hosseini headed over the bar.

Unjust

Iran played on the counter attack, frustrating Argentina and should perhaps have had the lead long before Messi decided matters. After 53 minutes Javad Nekounam dribbled through centre and passed to Dejagah. Reza Ghoochannejhadʼs header was saved by Sergio Romero. Two minutes later Serbian referee Milorad Mažić made another awful mistake. Manchester Cityʼs Pablo Zabaleta Girod brought down the Fulham man, but Mažić waved play on.

Messi and Argentina had been disappointing. With just under an hour played Messi came to life. His team-mates had failed to convert the half-chances he had created, so he tried a solo route. A trade-mark run into the danger area created the opportunity to shoot just wide of Haghighiʼs right-hand post.

Midway through the second half Pejman Montazeriʼs cross was met powerfully by Dejagah, but Romero was once again equal to the header. With three minutes injury time left a moment of individual skill by Messi decided the outcome of the match. It was hard on Iran and will raise further questions about the quality of refereeing in this tournament. The introduction of video technology canʼt come quick enough.