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Messi Argentina lose way in Arabian desert

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Express News Service

DOHA: Crazy things can happen in sports. A resolute, brave and technically sound Saudi Arabia put Asia on the board at the 2022 FIFA men’s World Cup in Qatar on Tuesday.  In the process, they scripted one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport.

The thousands of Saudi fans who made the trip across the border would be lying if they said a final scoreline of 2-1 against Argentina was a result they expected anywhere other than in their wildest fantasies. Yet, that’s how it ended at a roaring Lusail Stadium that was draped in a sea of green. 

It was reminiscent of Argentina’s 0-1 loss to Cameroon in Italy in 1990, where they were defending champions. A remarkably composed Herve Renard, the Saudi coach, summed it up in the post-match press conference. “Argentina is a fantastic team with great players,” he said. “They were unbeaten in 36 games and the champions of South America. But this is football. Sometimes crazy things happen.”

It could have gone very differently. With the clock barely at the double-digit mark, Lionel Messi, in his last World Cup, stepped up to the penalty spot and calmly stroked the ball home. From then on, it was hard work for the Saudis.

Argentina dominated possession and had all the chances. In the next 20 minutes, they found the back of the net thrice, first it was Messi who latched on to a lofted through ball and finished with characteristic composure.

Then the in-form Lautaro Martinez did the same, twice. Each time FIFA’s new semi-automated offside technology came to Saudi’s rescue. Playing a high line and, despite all the attempts by Argentina, Saudi’s offside trap held.

Seven times in the first half, the linesman held his flag up. Still, going into the break a goal up and under little or no pressure, it seemed only a matter of time before Lionel Scaloni’s side cemented the lead.

The Green Falcons, cheered on by fans, produced a stunning 10-minute spell to flip the game on its head. Playing on the counter, Saleh Al-Shehri converted superbly off a low-percentage chance off his left foot, levelling things up three minutes after half-time.

Then Salem Al-Dawsari produced a magical solo goal.  The two-time champions had opportunities to level but Saudi resisted scripting a famous win. 

Dream works

The first half against Argentina did not go the Saudi way and coach Herve Renard was not pleased. The team took the break one goal behind one of the most consistent teams in the world. “Tactically we were not good in the first half,” he said.

“Our block was compact but the pressure on the likes of (Leandro) Paredes was not enough. I think after the penalty if we had conceded a second goal that would have been the end. When you come to the World Cup you need to give everything.

We cannot play as we did in the first half…” Salem Al-Dawsari was magical as his right foot strike found the net. In the Argentine box, pressured by three defenders, al-Dawsari won the ball, made space for the shot and unleashed an effort that left Emiliano Martinez with no chance and himself with a memory he will never forget; nor his compatriots.

Saudi had two shots on target and they made both counts. Comparatively, captain Leo Messi et al were profligate; creating 14 chances and squandering all but the penalty.

“It was about inches, this offside situation,” Scaloni said in his post-game press conference. “… but we knew that with the new semi-automated system this could happen. We knew how they (Saudi) would play and it worked well. Congratulations to the other team for the win.”

Congratulations also to Mohammed Al-Owais, adjudged player of the game and a defensive line that grew in confidence as the game went on.

To win the game is one thing, but to hold Argentina from scoring off open play makes it even more special. “We prepared very well for the tournament and hopefully will have better results in the future,” Al-Owais said.

“We started preparing a month and a half ago and were able to play very well. Honestly, I felt that we were especially good in the last 10 minutes,” he concluded before leaving the floor to his manager and heading back to his comrades in the dressing room.

ALSO READ | Dream works: Saudi Arabia shock favourites Argentina  

So, where does Argentina, who now could face the prospect of a Round of 16 encounter against holders France (if La Albiceleste gets out of the group), go from here? It is the first game for both sides and there are two more games remaining. Scaloni knows his boys need to play better and win both remaining games to guarantee progression.

They will take heart from the memory of Italy 1990 when they went down by a single goal to Cameroon in the opening group game but went on to reach the final. For Saudi, the last three teams (Germany, Croatia and France) to beat Argentina have gone on to either win the tournament or make it to the final. But Renard was having none of it yet.

“Saudi players tend to start flying when they play well,” he said. “But I will be sitting on their shoulders keeping their feet on the ground. Humility is the way forward.”

What undid the albiceleste?

Saudi Arabia’s energy and high intensity caught Argentina unawares. The Saudi primary league has been shut since October third week, so players have been in sync with each other, training together and playing friendly matches for the last two months. That level of understanding showed in a display full of heart and effort from the first to the final whistle

It’s a very heavy blow, a defeat that hurts, but we must continue to have confidence in ourselves. This group is not going to give up. We will try to beat Mexico Lionel Messi Argentina’s captain

Saudi Arabia declared Wednesday a public holiday

Today’s matches 

Morocco vs Croatia 3.30 PM
Germany vs Japan 6.30 PM
Spain vs Costa Rica 9.30 PM
Belgium vs Canada 12.30 AM on Thursday

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