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Xinhua News Agency/PA Images Lionel Messi, in characteristic pose with Argentina.
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Saudi Arabia expose another collective Argentina failure in upset for the ages
Saudi Arabia shocked the world in beating Argentina 2-1 in Qatar today.

Argentina 1 

Saudi Arabia 2

A WORLD CUP upset in the classical sense, junking everything we thought we knew. 

But Saudi Arabia achieved it not in some kind of manic Alamoesque mingling of luck and spirit but instead with a methodical offside trap into which Argentina clumsily fell. 

Herve Renard’s side shocked Argentina at the Lusail Stadium with two second-half goals after Lionel Messi scored a VAR-awarded penalty in the opening minutes. It was apt that Argentina needed a video intervention for a foul on Leandro Paredes to score their goal as they looked unable to help themselves.

Renard’s team accentuated the sport’s on-pitch revolution instituted by the Barcelona team of Messi’s peak, a defensive effort based not on clogging their own penalty area but instead pushing up very high, crushing the midfield space in which Messi has been doing the best work of his final years.  

In their doing so, Saudi Arabia exposed Argentina as once again finding a new way to lose, with Renard offering his rookie opposite number a harsh introduction to the world’s glare.

A Copa America triumph and a 36-match unbeaten run formed a consensus that this  Argentina team were finally the cohesive collective that could finally lift Messi to the World Cup, but that view has now dissolved. While they are not the operatic psychodrama of Jorge Sampaoli’s side four years ago, they are still being ripped off on the exchange rate from individual to collective quality.

Argentina were startlingly clueless when faced with Saudi Arabia’s high-line, lacking patience and any kind of variation in their attacks. The Saudi high line took bravery and exceptional organisation but it was executed to stunning effect: Argentina had three goals ruled out for offside, with the new Artificial Intelligence-assisted technology spotting the inch of Lautaro Martinez’ shoulder that had leaned too far in the build up to the second goal. 

But much of their success was rooted in Argentina’s shocking lack of craft. Renard said after the game that he wasn’t happy with his side’s first-half performance — “We can’t play like we played in the first half” — the issue being they didn’t press the ball well enough. His half-time anger was another indictment of his opponents. 

In 2018 Argentina were a shapeless mess whose tactic was merely to give the ball to Messi, so now they have built a system to better serve Messi. It worked well right up to today, but they couldn’t change it when they needed to.

With Messi’s space squeezed, Argentina fell into the trap of hoiking the ball long into the space behind, but with only their forward players running onto it and predictably being flagged. Argentina were caught offside seven times in the first half alone – one more than the same figure for the whole of the 2018 World Cup. 

spqatar-lusail-2022-world-cup-group-c-arg-vs-ksa Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Herve Renard. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

Manager Lionel Scaloni – who fell into the job accidentally having never been a manager before – showed no ability to change his approach in-game. No Argentine player dropped off to link with a deeper runner who could beat the offside trap, while the full-backs hardly crossed the half-way line, robbing them of the kinds of patient, passing triangles that might give them some incision and give Messi some room in which to breathe. 

Meanwhile, Argentina’s vaunted defensive improvement – perhaps an illusion created by the full-backs’ conservatism – faded away too. The first goal was caused by another kind of inflexibility, as the first-choice but patently unfit Christian Romero was picked at centre-back over Lisandro Martinez and creaked with rust as he was beaten to a second ball by Saleh Alsheri, who then slotted the ball beyond Emi Martinez. 

The winning goal owed solely to individual brilliance with Salem Al-Dawsari cutting inside to curl the ball right into the top corner and beyond the helpless Martinez. Al-Dawsari was once suspended for headbutting a referee, but has insisted he has matured since.

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He and his team-mates showed exactly that maturity in closing the game out, defending heroically when they needed to but ultimately holding their high line as Argentina fumbled about in the throes of 13 minutes of added time.

It was a remarkable sight: Argentina, on the cusp of one of the greatest World Cup upsets of all time, cumbrously shuffling the ball to one another before launching the ball long to nobody, the Saudi line pushed high in their own half in a closing act of defiance. 

Argentina gouged out a couple of chances through circumstance rather than the design, with Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed Alowais forced to make one stunning save from close-range. 

Messi was utterly anonymous amid it all, tamely heading a chance at the goalkeeper as Argentina chased an equaliser, missing the spring in his legs he had when beating Edwin Van der Sar in the 2009 Champions League final. 

We knew before today that Messi’s international twilight would gather beneath blazing desert suns, but what we didn’t know was whether his World Cup dream would again be left unfulfilled by those around him. 

We have the answer now. 

For the latest news coverage on the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022, see here >

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