Sensational Saudis leave Messi and Argentina with familiar sinking feeling

Published November 23, 2022
LUSAIL: Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Angel Di Maria look dejected after their Group ‘C’ match against Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium on Tuesday.—Reuters
LUSAIL: Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Angel Di Maria look dejected after their Group ‘C’ match against Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium on Tuesday.—Reuters

SAUDI ARABIA were in dreamland; 1-0 down at half-time against the mighty Argentina led by the mesmeric Lionel Messi, they were 2-1 up after eight crazy, frenzied second-half minutes of their opening match of the World Cup in Qatar on Tuesday.

The goal that gave them the lead, the one that proved decisive in the end, was worthy of winning any game.

When a high ball came to him, Salem Al Dawsari, facing the goal from the left, seemed to have no chance. He then did a roulette, that took him further away, leaving the goal to his right. But in an instant, Al Dawsari turned, taking two Argentine defenders out of the equation. A shot with his right foot beckoned but there were still some Argentine bodies in the way. Al Dawsari took a touch that took him away from Rodrigo De Paul and then unleashed a rocket past the despairing, diving Leandro Paredes that touched the fingertips of Emilio Martinez before nestling into the far corner.

Al Dawsari reeled away in celebration; joy and disbelief in equal measure. The large contingent of Saudi fans, having crossed the border into Qatar — and making the majority of the 88000-strong crowd at the Lusail Stadium, was roaring. Argentina looked devastated. This was something they had in all probability never thought of; this was not the way the game was supposed to pan out for them.

After all, Argentina had come to the World Cup on the back of a 36-match unbeaten streak. Messi’s fifth World Cup was supposed to be his crowning moment. Instead, it seems the ghosts of Russia continue to haunt them. Then, they had opened with a 1-1 draw against Iceland, where Messi missed a penalty, before being drubbed 3-0 by Croatia. A win against Nigeria took them through to the knockouts where they were knocked out by eventual champions France.

It was the first time Argentina had lost a World Cup game to an Asian team. Herve Renard’s Saudis also became the first non-European team to win against the Albiceleste since Cameroon in 1990. Such was their achievement that it left Renard at a loss for words.

“Congratulations to these fantastic players,” said Frenchman Renard, apparently still trying to digest the result that will apparently go down as one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history. “The stars aligned for us. They came here without losing 36 games, they’re South American champions. They have an amazing player in Messi. But this is football and crazy things can happen.

“We made history for Saudi Arabia but we have important games [in Group ‘C’ against Mexico and Poland] to come. You can win the first game and not qualify from the group. You can lose the first game and still become champions.”

That’s probably what Argentina would be hoping for now. On the eve of the game, Messi had spoken about the finals in Qatar potentially being his last World Cup; his last crack at lifting the trophy that would give him the same immortal status in his home country as the legendary Diego Maradona, who delivered Argentina their last World Cup glory in 1986.

“We have to keep our heads up and bounce back quickly,” said a deflated Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni. “We owned the first half and we had goals ruled out for off-side. If we had those goals, a bigger lead, things would’ve probably ended differently. The players are in pain and they are thinking how we can turn this around.”

Messi is perhaps the biggest draw at this World Cup alongside his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo and he almost set the tournament alight in just the second minute. A trademark shot that he usually buries into the far corner was too close to Saudi Arabia goalkeeper Mohammed Al Owais. Messi, however, got his moment in the 10th minute when Paredes won a penalty and as Al Owais dived early, Argentina’s talisman rolled the ball to the other side.

Messi’s role with Argentina has evolved in the last decade; no longer does he drop back to pick up the ball and create play. Instead, he now prowls menacingly on the last line of the opposition’s defence, looking to spring clear or use his visionary passing to create opportunities for the team.

OFFSIDE TRAP

The Saudis were playing a dangerous high-line but their ploy was working; Argentina had three goals ruled out

for off-side in the space of 12 second half minutes; the first by Messi and then two by Lautaro Martinez.

But the Asians suffered a blow just before halftime when they lost their captain Salman Al-Faraj; the midfielder taped up to make their opening game after suffering shoulder injury playing for his club Al Hilal ahead of the tournament.

But instead of the injury bringing the side down, it galvanised Saudi Arabia. They came all guns blazing in the second half and just three minutes in, levelled matters with a goal through the heart of Argentina’s midfield and defence.

Firas Al Buraikan touched a ball won in midfield into the path of the onrushing Saleh Al Shehri, who got away from Cristian Romero and planted a left-footed shot past Martinez. Five minutes later came the goal that turned the game on its head — the wonder strike from Al-Dawsari.

Argentina were in shock and they tried to hit back; Scaloni making a triple substitution to change things. But they kept finding the Saudi defence and Al Owais a wall too difficult to breach. The question was how long they could sustain this.

Ten minutes from time, Messi finally had the opportunity to turn the game around. Argentina received a free-kick in prime Messi territory, the position from which he’s scored bucket loads of goals for his former club Barcelona.

It’s been a different story at World Cups, though. In 2014, in the final against Germany, he had a similar opportunity to send the game into a shootout but his shot sailed high and wide. It was a similar story here.

The Saudis could breathe but then came a relentless wave of Argentine pressure. Al Owais was called upon several times and stepped up each time. The time the ball evaded him in the first minute of stoppage time, defender Abdelelah Al Amri was there to head it away from the goal-line.

“It was thanks to God and then the conviction that me and my team-mates had,” said man-of-the-match Al Owais, who was greeted by hugs at the final whistle. The Saudis celebrated wildly, running to the hordes of their fans at the venue. Al Faraj, on crutches, came out to the pitch to celebrate.

Messi, engulfed by the Saudi celebrations, looked sullen. Lusail is the venue for the final, the game where Argentina hope Messi will end their long wait. But they just made their task harder to be there on Dec. 18.

Published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2022

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