Nothing in sports can cause such a sensation as an unfancied team playing their best game to upset a big team. Argentina’s loss to Saudi Arabia in their opening game on 22 November was one such. In this article, we review the match and analyse how the Saudis achieved the unthinkable.
Argentina Take early Lead
Before the competition began, Argentina were bookmakers’ favourites to top the group and qualify for the Round of 16. We found nothing to fault that assumption, as we watched the Argentines begin on the right foot against the Saudis. Ten 10 minutes into the game, their skipper Lionel Messi slotted home a penalty. The referee pointed to the dreaded spot when Leandro Paredes was hauled down in the box by Saud Abdulhamid.
Saudi Arabia’s Offside Trap
With nearly 75% possession, Argentina dominated the first half. However, the South Americans appeared unprepared for an off-side trap; they strayed out of bounds about seven times.
One ferocious attack followed another and Saudi Arabia clearly struggled to keep the Argentines from scoring. Messi was the first to be denied a goal after being ruled offside.
Soon after, Lautaro Martinez lobbed the ball over Md Al-Owais into the goal only to find that he had been ruled marginally offside by VAR.
First Ever Win for Saudis
Argentina and Saudi Arabia had met on four previous occasions. This was the Saudis’ first win over the South American side. Fans celebrated wildly in the stadium and across Doha city. The win was the first registered by a Middle-Eastern team at the World Cup.
The World Cup remains the lone trophy that Lionel Messi has never won. Towards the end of the match, he appeared a lonesome man as he tried his best to get his team back on track.
It was quite unlike the football legend to head the ball from close-range into the hands of the Saudi goalkeeper. That miss in the final moments was the perfect summary of the game.
Reinvigorated Saudis Bounce Back
The second half began brilliantly for the reinvigorated Saudi side. Three minutes into the half, Saleh Al-Shehri latched on to a long pass and guided the shot past the Argentine goalkeeper. The ball lodged in the far corner of the goal and Saudi Arabia were level at 1-1.
Saudi fans in the stands were sent into raptures. They were raucous in their celebration of the unexpected goal. Some minutes later, a brilliant curling shot into the top corner from winger Salem al-Dawsari beat the Argentine goalkeeper. Saudi Arabia who had been dominated by the Argentines in the first half had found their moment in the sun.
Resolute Saudi Defence Denies Argentina
Saudi Arabia defended resolutely and their goalkeeper registered a series of brilliant saves to deny Argentinians the equaliser.
That was not the end of the drama, though. About 5 minutes into injury time, Al-Dawsari was kneed accidentally by Al-Owais charging out of goal. He was given lengthy treatment before being taken out on a stretcher.
All credit to the Saudis. Though they enjoyed no more than 30 percent of possession, they grabbed the chances they had. Al-Shehri and Al-Dawsari gave their side two goals over five minutes of madness. Although that performance may never be replicated, Saudi coach Herve Renard is likely to be extremely happy with his wards.
Can Argentina Qualify for the Round of 16?
No team would enjoy losing their opening match in a World Cup. However, several sides have done so only to go on to enjoy a good tournament. However, Saudi Arabia are considered the weakest team in a group that also contains the likes of Mexico and Poland.
After their shock loss to the Asian side, Argentina face an uphill challenge to get past the group stage. The other sides in Group C are Poland and Mexico. Argentina’s games versus Mexico and Poland have become must-win affairs.
Will Argentina be guaranteed a place in the knock outs, if they beat Mexico and Poland? The drawn match between Mexico and Poland was the best news Argentina could have sought. That result ensured that neither Mexico nor Poland could get more than four points if the two sides lost to Argentina.
Can Argentina beat both Mexico and Poland? This question is tougher to answer. Neither of those teams is a knock over, as proved in the match between them on 22 November. However, if Argentina learn from the mistakes they made against Saudi Arabia, they will surely have reason for optimism.