Dubai: This has to be near the very top of World Cup shocks. Saudi Arabia are ranked 51 in the FIFA standings. They have played 17 matches at the world’s biggest stage, won 3, drawn 2 and lost 11. But somehow they beat favourites Argentina 2-1 in their Group C opener at Lusail Stadium to create a stunning piece of World Cup history.
Argentina took the lead when they were awarded a very soft penalty which star man Lionel Messi beautifully dispatched. They had two more goals ruled out for offside, both of which were very close calls. But that is as good as it got for Lionel Scaloni’s men.
Saudi Arabia were superb throughout. They took a massive chance with a high back line but by doing so they were able to squeeze the pitch and not allow Messi or Angel Di Maria time on the ball to create chances. The South Americans had not lost a World Cup match in which they scored first since 1958 but all that changed in a breathtaking second half.
Saudi Arabia drew level thanks to a very well taken goal from Salah Al Shehri - top scorer in the third round of AFC qualifying with four goals - and then incredibly they went ahead with a stunning second leaving Argentina fans with their hands on their heads. They couldn’t believe what was happening as the pre-tournament favourites fell behind following a gorgeous strike by Salem Al Dawsari. The number 10 - their man to watch - sidestepped a challenge inside the box before thumping a shot into the far corner. Argentina were poor in the second half but credit goes to Saudi Arabia for the way they approached the game. They showed far more hunger and intensity and were rewarded for their bravery.
Time after time Argentina looked to Messi to provide a spark but it can’t always be him. The others players needed to step up but failed to do so. Suddenly it feels like Argentina are going to be the surprise exit from the group stage. So much expectation was placed on them but this was the worst possible start.
With tough games against Poland and Mexico to come, they knew three points today were vital. They were the favourites for many but based on this performance they could struggle.
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, remember, Spain lost their first group game in 2010. And it turned out alright for them. They are missing Giovani Lo Celso who provides the connection between midfield and Messi. They didn’t have a creative spark today and as a result lost not only this match but their brillant 36-match unbeaten run. But they will regroup and go again.
Saudi Arabia – who were thrashed 5-0 by Russia in their opening game of the 2018 World Cup – have only managed to get out of the group once which came back in 1994. They came into this tournament on the back of a poor run of form with just two wins from their last 10 games. But they’re sitting pretty right now and will feel confident about making The Round of 16.