On the eve of Argentina’s opening match of the World Cup, there was so much focus on Lionel Messi that there was hardly a mention of their opponents Saudi Arabia.
Qatar 2022 is Messi’s fifth and almost certainly the last one and there has been talk of how the left-footed magician could lead Argentina to their first title since 1986, adding the most important and the last piece of silverware to his trophy-laden career. But there was a gentle reminder from Saudi’s French coach Herve Renard a day before the match, when he said on Monday: “We haven’t come to this World Cup just for a jolly. We have come here to be the best we can.”
Yesterday, the Saudi players proved Renard right, creating one of the greatest upsets of all time by stunning Messi led-Argentina 2-1 at a packed Lusail Stadium, a result described by Messi as a “heavy blow”. At the end of the Group C match, the Argentine fans – who made most of the 88,012-record crowd – were left distraught as the Saudi fans could not stop jumping with joy. It was a game of two halves literally, with Argentina failing to capitalise on numerous openings they had in the first half and only led 1-0 through Messi’s 10th-minute penalty.
In the second half, Saudi shredded the script dramatically. The Green Falcons equalised through Saleh al-Shehri in the 48th-minute before their most influential player Salem al-Dawsari produced a superb strike five minutes later to send the delirious crowd into a frenzy.
The shell-shocked Argentina team – one of the pre-tournament favourites – did not know how to react as Saudi defended heroically for one of the biggest shocks in the 92-year World Cup history. It was a courageous and brilliant performance from Renard’s men. Left to guard their lead for 51 minutes – including 14 minutes of stoppage time – the Saudi players led by goalkeeper Mohamed al-Owais and central defender Hassan al-Tambakti threw their body on the line. Al-Owais rightly won the man of the match for his commanding display in which he made five spectacular saves, two claims and 14 accurate passes, while also playing the role of a sweeper-keeper at times and clearing long balls from the midfield.
Saudi’s performance had the combination of pressing, energy and passion in equal measure. Whether they could sustain it till the final whistle was a big question mark and when they did, the tireless players, substitutes and support celebrated wildly and so did the Saudi fans.
“All the stars in the sky were aligned for us, but don’t forget Argentina are still a fantastic team,” said Renard after the pulsating clash. The Saudi coach warned his players not to celebrate for too long, saying: “This is football, sometimes totally crazy things can happen.”
Charismatic Renard, who has previously led Zambia and the Ivory Coast to Africa Cup of Nations glory was also sacked after a few matches in charge of Cambridge United in 2004 – was a calming influence on the pitch side and deserves credit for Saudi’s unlikely victory. “We needed to get this result, it will be one for the (history) books, but as a coach I’m always asking for more from my players, so let’s stay humble,” he said.
The 54-year-old’s tactic to play high line was fraught with danger but on the day it was hugely rewarding. Saudi are ranked 51st in the world, ironically one above hosts Qatar, and they had to take their chances and be more clinical upfront against third-ranked Argentina.
Lionel Scaloni’s Argentina came into the tournament among the favourites on the back of a 36-game unbeaten run that included winning the 2021 Copa America. There was no sign of the streak ending as Messi converted a penalty for his seventh goal in 20 World Cup appearances to put his side ahead after Saud Abdulhamid had pulled Leandro Parades to the ground in the box. The 35-year-old became the first Argentinian to score in four World Cups – 2006, 2014, 2018 and 2022 – and the fifth man in history to achieve the feat. There was a feeling he would add even more yesterday.
And he did find the net but only for the goal to be ruled out by off-side. Inter Milan striker Lautaro Martinez too had two of his goals called off side, with the second one being extremely unlucky after VAR ruled the tip of his shoulder was a fraction ahead of Abdulhamid. Saudi’s high line was working as Argentina had committed seven off-sides in the first half as the South Americans had just a goal to show for all their dominance and they paid heavily for their profligacy in front of the goal.
Saudi, meanwhile, came out with renewed energy despite losing captain Salman al-Faraj to injury at the end of first half. Renard’s half-time talk created wonders as they turned the game upside down with an attacking display. Cristian Romero was clearly ripe to be picked off as the Tottenham defender struggled in the opening 45 minutes and was uncomfortable after the restart too. The equaliser came soon for Saudi after al-Shehri collected a pass from Feras al-Brikan and then beat Romero on the left, as the ball bounced past goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez’s outstretched hands.
As Argentina panicked with Scaloni making triple substitution, Saudi went for the kill with al-Dawsari producing a moment of magic. His sensational right-footer came after he evaded a lunging Parades as the forward beat Martinez to land the ball into the top corner.
As the rattled Argentina players went to fetch the ball, Messi gestured to his players not to drop their shoulders.
The captain came close to bringing his side back into the game but before he could latch onto a loose ball in the box, al-Tambakti made an outstanding last-ditch tackle. Argentina did win many corners but were unable to make use of it as al-Owais was alert to any danger.
As the Slovenian referee Slavko Vincic blew the final whistle after a never-ending stoppage time, the Saudi players breathed a sigh of relief and collapsed to the ground in absolute joy. The biggest win of their lives will make them believe they can enter the last 16 of the World Cup for only the second time.
Hervard’s men take on Poland on Saturday, while a bruised
Argentina face Mexico and aim for a victory needed to keep their World Cup hopes alive.
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