It wasn’t supposed to go like this. This is Lionel Messi’s final World Cup and Argentina are already on the brink of elimination after a staggering 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia in their opening game.
It wasn’t supposed to go like this. Messi opened the scoring from the penalty spot after 10 minutes. Only a tight offside call on Lautaro Martinez stopped Argentina from running away with it in the first half. And then… and then the World Cup happened, or Herve Renard’s earthquake of a half-time speech.
Where does that leave Argentina now? Let’s talk our way through it, therapy-style, in the very first edition of crisis nation of the week, a very special column coming your way throughout Qatar 2022.
Quick side note directed squarely to the entire nation of Germany: you guys are very, very lucky not to be here in Argentina’s place. See you next week, probably.
It’s simple. After avoiding defeat for 36 matches, Argentina went and lost. In their first game. At the World Cup. The World Cup many had them as favourites to win. football, eh?
Not only that, it was to an unfancied Saudi Arabian side ranked outside the world’s top 50. A team many predicted to be propping up the table in Group C. Lionel Scaloni and Argentina now have the rather unappealing task of facing Mexico and then Poland, two stubborn teams who won’t roll over easily, knowing that anything less than two wins could well result in group stage elimination and a period of national mourning.
Beyond that, the fact that this will be Messi’s final World Cup amplified expectations and will do so to any fallout if they are knocked out. Fans and pundits across the globe were envisioning Messi signing off from international football with the trophy in his hands and GOAT status confirmed. It would have been quite the way to bow out. That dream, however, is quickly fading – if not already extinguished entirely.
It’s difficult to say. In the first half, Argentina were getting behind the perilously-high Saudi line almost at will. The offside trap worked twice on Messi and Martinez before the Inter striker’s second disallowed goal was ruled out in a fairly scandalous manner by VAR.
Had Lautaro’s shoulder protruded a fraction less then Scaloni’s men would have gone into the dressing room two goals to the good and cruising. In contrast, Saudi Arabia would likely have been completely deflated rather than encouraged by the fact that they were still within touching distance at 1-0.
The second half can only go down to complacency. Emiliano Martinez should probably have done a bit better for the two goals but both were exquisite finishes from Saleh al-Shehri and then Salem al-Dawsari.
In response to going behind, Argentina created very little and seemed – as is often the case – over-reliant on the singular creative force of Messi, despite the glittering team around him. In Mohammed al-Owais they also came up against a goalkeeper having one of the games of his life.
In the immortal words of Taylor Swift: shake it off, shake it off, shake it off, shake it off, shake it off, shake it off.
One result doesn’t just suddenly make Argentina a bad team. This is a side only a year removed from beating Brazil at the Maracana to seal the Copa America. In Angel Di Maria, Lionel Messi and Lautaro Martinez they have one of the most devastating attacking tridents in the tournament – with Paulo Dybala still to come.
All in all, they are more than capable of beating both Mexico and Poland, particularly after the fairly dire showing by both of those teams in their 0-0 draw, although Mexico did look slightly more threatening.
They should also take confidence from that result in terms of the group standings. Had Robert Lewandowski managed to beat Guillermo Ochoa from the spot, Poland could have snatched the three points and made advancing an even more challenging prospect.
Simply put, they have to beat Mexico. Do that and things will start to look a whole lot brighter again, even if their status as one of the major contenders for the trophy has been put in serious doubt.