The 2022 FIFA World Cup is billed as Lionel Messi's last one and arguably his best shot to win the one trophy missing from his collection. But on Tuesday his ambition to lay hands on the glittering trophy suffered a huge blow as the South American giants crashed to a shocking 2-1 loss at the hand of minnows Saudi Arabia in the Group C opener.
On Tuesday, none of the 88,012 spectators at the Losail stadium, the arena which will host the final on December 18, had the faintest of thoughts of the Asian minnows upstaging their famous rivals when the match kicked off. But in the end, an upset result did happen, with Saudi Arabia walking away with full points thanks to goals from Saleh Al and Salem Al Dawsari.
The match had everything you could have asked for which kept everyone on their toes.
A goal within the first ten minutes of the match, VAR coming into play twice in the opening half -- first time Argentina earned a penalty and the second going in Favour of Saudi Arabia, with a goal ruled as offside.
A lot happened in the first half of the opening match of Group C between reigning Copa America champions and the Asian giants.
Argentina stuck to a game plan of putting up loads of men upfront, well-spaced, with one on each touchline.
A second-minute move stitched together by Angel Di Maria and Lautaro Martinez gave an insight into things to follow. With six players upfront, Di Maria, using the width on the right, crossed it to Martinez, only for the ball to run loose -- and onto the left leg of the onrushing Messi.
The mercurial 35-year-old made the connection but could not bend inside the far corner, but found Mohammed Alowais in the way, who dived to deflect the ball away from the goal.
Argentina's attacking play yielded results. Messi, who was entrusted with a free-kick on the left flank set up Rodrigo De Paul on the edge, who shot into a defender. The referee went to consult VAR and Saud Abdulhamid was adjudged as having brought down Leandro Paredes, resulting in a penalty for Argentina.
Messi stepped in to take the kick from the penalty spot, pigeon steps then hop and with the keeper committing early went down the right, rolled left sending the keeper the wrong way giving Argentina the start they wanted.
Although Saudi Arabia conceded an early goal they were not overawed by the situation they continued to play the offside trap to superb effect. But at times they left a lot of space behind leaving them suspect to balls over the top.
The Saudis came into their own and combined to make a few forays into the rival half. They were committing men forward which shaped into an enjoyable contest. One such move down the right allowing Abdulhamid to cross from the right but Damian Martinez dived forward to collect.
At the other end, Messi scored for the second time in the match in the 22nd minute but was pulled offside.
A good 13 minutes later, Lautaro Martinez got into a one-on-one situation, stepping over to commit the keeper before rolling in, but the goal was ruled out after a VAR review.
In the second half, Saudi Arabia came back strongly and scored within three minutes after the start. Saleh Al Shehri's left-footed shot from the left side of the box ended in the bottom right corner, giving a finishing touch to a move by Feras Al Brikan.
The Saudi Arabia supporters, who were outnumbered by the blue and white T-shirts in the stadium, suddenly went full blast with their vocal support for their team.
And the players did not let them down with the Middle-East giants scoring a second goal in the 53rd minute with Salem Al Dawsari's right-footed shot from the left side of the box finishing in the top right corner.
With Argentina down by a goal, coach Lionel Scaloni went into a gamble and brought in three players on the turf with Marcos Acu�a replacing Nicol�s Tagliafico, Enzo Fernandez coming in for Leandro Paredes and Juli�n �lvarez taking the place of Papu G�mez.
Thereafter Argentina pressed home for the equaliser but could not beat the last line of defense.
A few of the Argentina players came close to scoring with Enzo Fern�ndez's header from the centre of the box going over the top, and then a Messi header from the centre of the box saved on the goal line in the 83rd minute. A few minutes earlier, Messi's left-footed shot, off a direct free kick from outside the box, narrowly missed the top-right corner.
The Saudis resorted to a lot of physical play to keep their opponents in check and the referee had to reach out to his pocket to show the yellow cards to Abdulhamid, Abdulelah Al Malki, Salem Al Dawsari and Ali Al Bulayhi.
Saudi Arabia also brought in fresh legs to maintain the slender one-goal lead with Sultan Al Ghannam replacing Saleh Al Shehri.
(With inputs from IANS)