Messi Who? Plucky Saudi Arabia stun ‘favourites,’ Argentina
• Tunisia raises Africa’s hope
‘Don’t cry for me Argentina,’ goes Eva Peron’s (also known as Evita) famous words, which were sung by Madonna. But yesterday at the Lusail Stadium, Qatar, Lionel Messi and his troop were left to rue missed first-half chances and their strikers ill-timing that cost them three goals, as plucky Saudi Arabia recorded the first big upset of the ongoing 2022 World Cup.
It was totally a victory that came out of the blues, but followers of Saudi coach, Herve Renard, predicted that the Frenchman, who took Morocco to a mazy run at the World Cup in Russia four years ago, could ruffle some shoulders here in Qatar. And that his boys did by inflicting a on one of the favourites an unexpected defeat.
Really, the stars appeared to be aligning for Messi as he arrived at the Qatar World Cup being the talisman for an Argentina squad that has been simply unbeatable since 2019.
And when the 35-year-old scored a penalty 10 minutes into the opening Group C clash, it seemed that the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner was on his way to leading his country to glory.
And then signs that Messi’s fifth and final World Cup might end up in familiar crushing disappointment showed early in the second half when Saleh Al-Shehri got away from Cristian Romero all too easy to draw Saudi Arabia level. Rather than defend to keep the game safe at 1-1, Saudi Arabia roared forward five minutes later with Al-Dawsari shrugging off some flimsy challenges to curl a winner that Messi himself would have been proud to have in his glittering collection.
Saudi Arabia ranked 51st by FIFA, looked more like the better-rated team than Argentina rated as the world’s third-best team.
While green-clad fans celebrated in delirious fashion, hundreds of Argentina’s travelling army sat staring into space, trying to figure out what had happened.
They might point to the three disallowed goals, one for Messi and two for Lautaro Martinez, as bad luck. But when the shock subsides, they will rightly be angry at how a squad packed with household names and who were one game away from equalling Italy’s 37-match unbeaten run in international football, suffered another World Cup blowout.
Having one goal disallowed for offside could be considered unfortunate. Three smacked of carelessness by Lionel Scaloni’s side, who should have been home and dry by halftime.
Saudi Arabia’s offside trap was canny, but forwards of the quality of Messi, Martinez and Angel Di Maria ran into it seven times in the first half — one more than they did in the whole of the 2018 tournament in Russia.
No-one thought that it would matter much and that Argentina would change gears after the break. But from the moment the second half kicked off, they looked ragged, cumbersome and ponderous — certainly not like a team widely tipped to deliver a third World Cup, and first since Diego Maradona’s 1986 glory.
Argentina can still salvage their World Cup, as they did in 1990 when they reached the final having been shocked by Cameroun in their opening game, but Scaloni has some serious thinking ahead of their next game against a dangerous Mexico side.
And with Poland also in the group, they have left themselves with little wriggle room and Messi’s hopes hanging by a thread.
The result will go down as one of the greatest upsets in the history of the World Cup, but Messi insists there is a way back for his team — one of the pre-tournament favourites — if they can deal with the setback.
“It is a very hard blow for everyone, we did not expect to start this way,” Messi said. “Things happen for a reason. We have to prepare for what is coming, we have to win, and it depends on us.
“There are no excuses. We are going to be more united than ever. This group is strong, and we have shown it. It is a situation that we haven’t gone through in a long time. Now we have to show that this is a real group.”
Saudi Arabia manager Renard suggested afterwards that Argentina — 48 places above his team in the world rankings — might have lacked motivation.
Messi, however, insisted they had not taken their opponents lightly and told fans who have travelled to Qatar in their thousands that they will turn their World Cup campaign around when they face Mexico and Poland.
“My message to the supporters is to have faith,” Messi added. “We won’t leave them stranded.”
Meanwhile, Africa will get a taste of the action for the second time, today, when Morocco enters the fray against 2018 finalists, Croatia. They will want to surpass the feat of their neighbours, Tunisia, who held Denmark to a goalless draw in a Group D opener at the Education City Stadium.
Denmark came into this match with an unblemished record against African opponents at the FIFA World Cup. The Danes are unbeaten against all the African teams they have faced at the World Cup winning twice and drawing the same number of matches.
Tunisia, on the other hand, was looking for their first win against European opposition at the tournament. The have lost seven matches with only three draws. Tunisia has also failed to keep a clean sheet in all the matches they have been involved in at FIFA World Cup.
Led by the enigma of Youssef Msakni, the Carthage Eagles were up for the task of taking the game to Denmark.
Like most of the matches seen at this World Cup so far, the game had a frantic start but with neither side finding it hard to put their foot on the ball and pass it without being pressed into a mistake or launching it forward.
There was a particular threat from Tunisia in the 11th minute as Mohamed Drager let fly from range only for his shot to deflect off Andreas Christensen and wide of Kasper Schmeichel’s goal.
Dolberg and Olsen who were expected to make the moves in midfield for Denmark were struggling to find inroads in the Tunisia defense.
Issam Jebali nearly broke the deadlock on 43 minutes. He was played into the area by Msakni. The striker with only Schmeichel to beat attempted a dink it over him – but the goalkeeper stuck his right hand up and flicked it around the post to deny the Eagles a lead.
The two teams went into the break with no goals on the score sheet. Tunisia coach Jalel Kadri was, perhaps, the happier of the two Managers going into the halftime team talk.
The second half started on a high just as the second, with the Tunisians frustrating Denmark in all areas of the pitch.
Christian Eriksen was denied a goal by Tunisia goalkeeper Aymen Dahmen. The midfielder drove through the middle of the pitch and fired at goal from the edge of the box with his left foot but Dahmen pushed it behind with his left hand for a corner whish was eventually dealt with.
There were very few chances in the second half except for a late shout for a handball in the Tunisian box. There was a VAR check but it came to nothing.