Argentina suffered a painful and unexpected 2-1 defeat against Saudi Arabia in their World Cup 2022 opener in Lusail on Tuesday, with Lionel Messi's side casting doubts over their future in the competition.
The Saudis, who pulled off the first major upset of the tournament in Qatar, looked on paper to be the weakest team in Group C, which is completed by Mexico and Poland. It all started so well for the Albiceleste, who went ahead with a Lionel Messi penalty in the 10th minute, but their opponents turned the tie around through Saleh Al Sheri in the 48th minute and Salem Al Dawsari in the 53rd.
Argentina, who had seen three goals disallowed for offside in the first half, were unable to recover and failed in their attempt to avoid disaster.
"We have to pick ourselves up, win the other two games. Today is a sad day, but as we always say, heads up and move forward," said coach Lionel Scaloni.
The South American giant’s unbeaten run stood at 36 matches, one short of Roberto Mancini's record of 37 with Italy. La Scaloneta had not lost since July 2019, going all the way back to the semi-final against Brazil at that year's Copa América.
Messi, who scored his seventh World Cup goal, was unable to celebrate as he hoped on the day he made his fifth appearance at the tournament, a record that sees him equal legends like Germany's Lothar Matthaüs, Italy's Gianluigi Buffon and Mexico's Antonio Carbajal and Rafa Marquez.
But the defeat in Lusail dampened any celebrations or glimmer of joy.
"It's a very hard blow. We didn't expect to start like this. We were hoping to start well, with the three points," admitted Messi in the mixed zone.
Nothing at the start of the match foreshadowed what was to come.
Messi had a first chance in the second minute, when he found himself with a ball that was just wide of the penalty spot, but his shot was blocked by the left hand of the opposing keeper.
The Paris Saint-Germain star did not have to wait long for his first goal at Qatar 2022: a penalty following a foul on his club and international team-mate Leandro Paredes, awarded after a VAR review. The Albiceleste number 10 converted in the 10th minute, putting Argentina ahead.
Before half-time, the lead could have been extended but offside prevented it – three times. First another effort by Messi in the 22nd minute and then twice to deny Lautaro Martínez in the 28th and 35th. In Lautaro's first, play was halted for a VAR review.
In stoppage time of the first half, Saudi Arabia had to replace their captain Salman Al Faraj due to injury.
At the start of the second half, everything changed. In a giant plot twist, Saudi Arabia scored twice.
First, in the 48th minute, Messi lost possession in midfield and the ball found its way to Saleh Al Shehri, who – despite the close attention of Cristian Romero – managed to find space for a cross-shot that surprised Emiliano Martínez and glided home.
Still staggering from the blow, Argentina conceded a second in the 53rd minute when Salem Al Dawsari got on the end of a deflected pass and fired home a sensational strike from from the edge of the box.
Argentina tried to push back. In the 63rd minute, Saudi keeper Mohammed Al Owais kept out Nicolas Tagliafico's close-range effort and nine minutes later, Ángel Di María’s cross was overhit. In the 80th minute, Messi sent a free-kick over the bar. The PSG star himself, straining to reach a header, was unable to hit the target in the 84th.
Between the posts, defender Abdulelah Al Amri saved a last-ditch effort from Julián Álvarez on the line as the match stretched into injury time.
The Saudis' nerves and defensive organisation held, as did the rest, and Argentina ended up lost in the desert.
"The stars aligned. We mustn't forget that Argentina are still a fantastic team," said Saudi Arabia’s French coach Hervé Renard after the match.
Crunch time is nearing for Argentina. On Saturday, a “final” against Mexico awaits, said goalkeeper ‘Dibu’ Martínez. Another will follow against Poland.
by Diego Reinares, AFP