Qatar isn’t a popular host for the 2022 World Cup. It will be a tournament with a uniquely bizarre legacy once it’s over. However, amidst fears of a dull tournament, Saudi Arabia produced a moment that will go down in World Cup history.
Tuesday morning saw the unfancied Saudi Arabian team, coached by Herve Renard, defeat Argentina.
World Cups often throw up moments that are talked about for a lifetime. Zaire’s attempt to defend a Brazilian free-kick. Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal. Siphiwe Tshabalala’s ‘Goal for Africa.’ Saudi Arabia’s win over Argentina and Lionel Messi joins those ranks in outlandish World Cup moments.
The 2-1 scoreline was a result nobody saw coming. The ramifications for the rest of the group phase are significant. This result breathed life into Qatar 2022 as a sporting spectacle.
Argentina need more than Messi
Argentina’s lack of energy was the most disappointing part about the side’s performance at Lusail Stadium. Despite taking an early lead through a Lionel Messi penalty, the Albiceleste looked lethargic.
Of course, they would counter such a claim with the point that they had three goals disallowed inside the opening 45 minutes.
Renard’s offside trap worked, with the semi-automated offside detection tool working in perfect accordance with the rules. Whether the rules written are applicable in this era of modern football remains a separate debate.
Messi started the match confidently. He was leading his beloved national team into what is likely his final World Cup. Gone were the visible signs of stress from four years ago. Messi didn’t look as if he had the weight of a nation on his shoulders. He now had a band of teammates who worked as a unit.
Lionel Scaloni’s charges had the tag of pre-tournament favorites due to this unity. After years of having talented players who didn’t form a good team, the South American giants had a reliable group who could win together.
Yet, after just 45 minutes in Lusail, Messi’s supporting cast deserted him.
Saudi Arabia surprised everyone with stunner over Argentina
Saudi Arabia’s equalizer came two minutes after half-time. Saleh Alshehri was through on goal. He placed a beautiful shot into the bottom corner of the net.
The goal shocked the South Americans. Saudi Arabia failed to register a shot in the first half of play. Suddenly, the Saudis were in the ascendency. Saudi Arabia flew into challenges, eliminating any Argentina time on the ball. Consequently, the fans’ energy, and any momentum from the first half, evaporated.
Argentina were on the ropes. After 53 minutes, an improbable draw turned into a World Cup miracle.
Salem Aldawsari etched his name into Saudi folklore with a Goal of the Tournament contender. He took advantage of a nervy Argentina defense to curl one past Emi Martínez.
From there, Argentina had a mountain to climb. All the pressure and anxiety from Russia in 2018 came flooding back. The color from Messi’s face went flushing out.
He knew he would have to step up, and he was met with a resolute Saudi backline. Nobody could have predicted how organized the 51st ranked team in the world would be. Defensive headers kept Julian Alvarez and Lautaro Martinez off the scoresheet. Meanwhile Mohammed Al-Owais made five saves and was in inspired form.
Argentina couldn’t find a breakthrough once the pressure was on. Now, the side faces a difficult passage into the knockout phase.
“We fully respected Saudi Arabia”
Lionel Scaloni knows there is no room for error now. Tough fixtures against Mexico and Poland await. Results out of their control could influence Argentina’s fate, much like it did in 2018.
The Argentina coach comes under pressure after such a shock. Regardless, he maintained that his side played well and didn’t take the Saudis lightly.
“We fully respected Saudi Arabia,” he explained in his post-match press conference. “It’s a sad day, but as we always say, head held high, we must bounce back.
“It’s difficult to digest. In four, five minutes they scored two goals with two shots.”
PHOTO: IMAGO / Sipa USA
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