Premier League

Argentina go arse over elbow in opening sequence to Messi’s last dance as Saudi steal the show

Lionel Messi reacts to Argentina's defeat to Saudi Arabia.

It had been 36 games since Argentina last tasted defeat. And a lot longer than that since we’ve had this much fun on a Tuesday morning…

Saudi Arabia pulled off one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history by tripping up one of the favourites in the opening sequence of Lionel Messi’s last dance. And they were absolutely brilliant in doing so.

Long before the prospect of an upset appeared genuine, it felt like the World Cup had finally kickstarted three days and five games late. The atmosphere inside the Lusail Stadium, despite yet more empty seats, was as feverish as you would reasonably expect from the greatest, most gratuitous show on earth. The Saudis brought numbers and volume over the border, matching the Argentinians, all of whom came to Qatar in anticipation of seeing Messi crowned at his fifth finals.

They might yet. This is a hugely damaging defeat for Argentina but not fatal to their prospects of a second World Cup. They suffered a similarly-humiliating defeat in their opener against Cameroon in 1990 – this Saudi performance deserves to be ranked alongside that Indomitable Lions’ effort – and Diego Maradona still carried them to the final. We would be daft to write off Messi from repeating the feat. But he and his team-mates will have to shape up sharpish.

Since Maradona’s prime and through Messi’s, we’ve seen many Argentina sides fail to achieve their potential. But Lionel Scaloni’s side are supposed to be different. This is the mob most suited for Messi, we’ve been told, and their previous unbeaten run, stretching back to 2019, backs up those suggestions. Today, though, Argentina showed alarming signs of many of their old failings.

Things started brightly enough. Messi had them in front from the penalty spot inside 10 minutes when Saudi defenders engaged in a grapple that no-one – Iran aside – can get away with in the VAR era. Especially not now referees have been told, again, to clamp down such methods of defending corners.

An onslaught was expected and the signs didn’t look good for the Saudi’s, especially when their commitment to a high line became the prominent theme. Herve Renard’s approach initially seemed ill-advised, bordering on kamikaze. Surely Argentina, with the class of Messi and Lautaro Martinez, would suss the Saudis?

Apparently not. They had three goals ruled out for offside by varying margins. Messi and Martinez were too impatient on each occasion – perhaps a small indicator of the…

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