Saudi Arabia stuns Messi’s Argentina to ignite the World Cup

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Saudi Arabian players celebrate their stunning World Cup victory over Argentina – Copyright AFP Antonin THUILLIER

John Weaver

Saudi Arabia pulled off one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history on Tuesday, roaring back to beat Argentina 2-1, a result Lionel Messi described as a “big blow.”

Copa América champions Argentina came into the game in Qatar riding a 36-match unbeaten run and appeared to be on their way to an easy win after Messi converted an early penalty.

Lionel Scaloni’s side could have put the game out of reach for Saudi Arabia in the first half, but they had three goals disallowed for offside.

Saudi Arabia, ranked 51st in the world, equalized early in the second half through Saleh Al-Shehri, silencing the hordes of Argentine fans.

And just a few minutes later, the Green Falcons were in front when Salem Al-Dawsari fired an unstoppable shot into the top corner after a delightful trick.

Argentina closed in on the Saudi goal as the minutes wore on, but goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais was unbeatable and the final whistle sparked scenes of jubilation.

Argentina, which last failed to reach the knockout stage in 2002, will be eliminated on Saturday if it loses its second match against Mexico.

“It’s a very strong blow, a loss that hurts, but we must continue to have confidence in ourselves,” said Messi, who has never won a World Cup in his illustrious career.

“This group is not going to give up. We will try to beat Mexico”.

Saudi Arabia’s French coach Herve Renard said the “stars were aligned” for his team.

“We made history for football,” he added. “He will stay forever, this is the most important thing. But we also have to think about looking forward. We still have two difficult games ahead of us”.

– Failing Lewandowski –

The loss is a bitter setback for Argentina, which came within a game of equaling Italy’s all-time record of 37 games without losing.

Scaloni insisted that his team had not taken their opponents lightly.

“What comes is getting up, facing Mexico,” he said. “They will be tough, like everyone is at the World Cup. Now we need to win two games to move forward.

“Of course this is difficult, but regardless of today’s result, we would still try to win every game.”

Poland drew 0-0 with Mexico in the other Group C match, with Robert Lewandowski missing a second-half penalty.

The Barcelona striker was denied his first World Cup goal when his 58th-minute penalty was saved by veteran goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.

In the final match on Tuesday, Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain teammate Kylian Mbappe will lick his lips as France take on an Australian side desperately lacking star power in Group D.

France coach Didier Deschamps will be without starting midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante for the entire tournament, while Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema will also be unavailable.

Mbappé will lead a French attack in which veteran Olivier Giroud replaces Benzema.

Denmark drew 0-0 with Tunisia in the other group game, with talisman Christian Eriksen appearing in his first match at a major tournament since suffering cardiac arrest during the European Championships last year.

– Ronaldo’s departure in Manchester –

Saudi Arabia’s dramatic victory shifted the focus, at least for a while, to on-pitch action, but Messi’s great rival Cristiano Ronaldo was soon back in the news.

Manchester United said the 37-year-old striker, currently with the Portugal squad in Qatar, will leave the club with “immediate effect” following last week’s incendiary television interview.

Ronaldo had said that he felt “betrayed” by the club and had no respect for manager Erik ten Hag.

And in Qatar, Belgian Jan Vertonghen said he was “afraid” to speak out about human rights after European nations decided not to wear a rainbow-themed captain’s armband.

Seven countries, including England and Germany, have abandoned plans to wear the armbands at the World Cup due to the threat of disciplinary action from FIFA, including reservations.

They had been seen as a symbolic protest against laws in the host nation where homosexuality is illegal.

“I’m afraid if I say something about this I might not be able to play tomorrow,” the defender said.

“It is an experience that I have never felt before in football. I feel controlled. I’m afraid to even say anything about it.”

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