By Peter Rutherford
June 21 (Reuters) - Upstarts Iran were undone by a last-gasp moment of magic from Argentina's Lionel Messi in their World Cup Group F thriller on Saturday, a game coach Carlos Queiroz described as a battle between geniuses and workers.
Messi, marked tightly throughout the game in Belo Horizonte, finally found a yard of space in stoppage time to curl a magnificent left-foot shot past the despairing dive of Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi and snatch a 1-0 win.
Although Iran failed to win a point, they earned plenty of admirers with a performance of industry, composure and no little adventure.
Yes, they defended deep and in numbers. Yes, they shackled Messi with two, sometimes three markers.
But when they broke they went straight for the jugular, slicing Argentina apart in the second half with Ashkan Dejagah and Reza Ghoochannejhad going close.
Had it not been for the inspired goalkeeping of Argentina's Sergio Romero, Iran might now be celebrating one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history.
With the game delicately balanced at 0-0, Queiroz said he had pushed for victory.
"My final decision in the last five minutes was to put two strikers on the pitch, I wanted to win the game," he told a news conference.
"We needed to take risks and gamble, but when you have Messi, at any moment he can make the difference.
"As I promised yesterday, we needed to defend and work hard, but we proved that we defend always with our eyes pointed to the Argentine goal."
Queiroz, who is stepping down as coach after the World Cup due to a lack of financial support from the government, took pride in Iran's workmanlike performance against some of the best players in the world.
"You cannot put a question mark to the win of Argentina with such beautiful players, we have to accept and respect that," said Queiroz, a former assistant manager to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.
"But what happened in these 90 minutes, we competed. Two great teams on different levels, some using geniuses, some using workers."
The Mozambique-born coach was critical of Serbian referee Milorad Mazic for failing to award Iran a penalty in the second half, though television replays suggested Argentina defender Pablo Zabaleta's challenge on Dejagah was fair.
"At the end, two personalities in the game, they made the difference," said Queiroz. "The number one was the referee. The second was Lionel Messi ... They made the difference, Lionel Messi and the referee."
Although Messi's marvellous winner left Iran's broken-hearted players to slump to their knees, the West Asians are still standing in Group F and could still join Argentina in the last 16.
They drew their opening game 0-0 against Nigeria, who play Bosnia later on Saturday. With the African side still to play Argentina, second spot could well come down to goal difference.
Queiroz said his job now was to get Iran thinking about Bosnia.
"We need to rest and recover," he added. "My major concern is to keep players focused with the same belief."