Argentina's only sparkle: Messi's left foot
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (AP) It's hardly a secret weapon. Everyone knows Lionel Messi shoots with his left foot nine times out of 10.
Yet over 90 minutes there's bound to be that one moment when he finds enough space to unleash a left-foot strike that can't be stopped even if you see it coming.
Against Bosnia, it was with 25 minutes left of the match. Against Iran, it happened in stoppage time.
In fact, considering that Bosnia's early own goal in the opening Group F match resulted from Messi's free kick, his left foot bears responsibility for Argentina's entire scoring tally so far at the World Cup.
''There are very few players who can do those things,'' teammate Angel Di Maria said Sunday of Messi's goals. ''We're happy he is one of us and that he is having a good moment.''
Argentina can thank Messi's moments of genius for the 2-1 and 1-0 wins over Bosnia and Iran, which helped the team book a ticket to the second round despite mediocre performances.
Both of his goals were set up in a similar way, with Messi pulling in from the right looking for space to send off a thunderbolt from his left foot.
Of Messi's 41 goals last season for Barcelona, he scored 35 with his left foot, five with his right and one with a header.
By comparison, the right-footed Cristiano Ronaldo - who last year broke Messi's four-year reign as FIFA world player of the year - was a bit more versatile. The Portuguese player's 51 goals for Real Madrid included 40 with the right, six with the left and five headers.
Messi's heavy reliance on his left foot, also when he dribbles, means that in theory defenders should be able to anticipate his moves. The problem for them is he performs them so fast.
On Saturday Iran's Reza Ghoochannejad was blocking Messi's path toward the goal when he approached the area in injury time. In a swift move, Messi used the outside of his foot to scoop the ball to the left, took three quick steps and fired a shot microseconds before Ghoochannejad could stretch his leg out to block it.
''Only Messi could score that goal,'' Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said. ''He was cool, calm, he found the right moment, the right space. Because only a player with that dimension has the ability to strike a goal like that.''
Argentina has already clinched a spot in the round of 16 but needs at least a draw in the final group stage match against Nigeria to finish top of Group F.
The big question for Argentina now is how far the team can go on Messi's left-footed brilliance alone.