Argentina, who were widely tipped to be one of the best teams at this tournament, had been expected to easily brush aside unfancied Saudi Arabia – ranked 53rd in the world – in their Group C opener in Lusail. However, two excellent strikes by the Saudi Arabians at the start of the second half and some fine individual defensive performances, with Hassan Tambakti impressive, gave them their most iconic victory on the global stage. The win enhances Saudi Arabia’s chances of reaching the knock-out stages for only the second time in their history, with all of their players based domestically.
Argentina took a tenth-minute lead when Leo Messi converted a penalty and Lionel Scaloni’s team had three further goals chalked off for offside via Messi and Lautaro Martinez in the first half. They did not look in any great danger but the Saudis, under wily manager Herve Renard, regrouped at the interval. Saleh Al Shehri showed good composure to finish when through on goal on 48 minutes and then five minutes later, a fine strike from Salem Al Dawsari could not be kept out by the flailing hand of Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, sending thousands of Saudi Arabian fans inside the Lusail Iconic Stadium wild.
A shellshocked Argentina tried to rally and while they created some openings and press in the 14 minutes of stoppage time added on, they were unable to find an equaliser and were let down by a poor final ball, with Messi and Angel di Maria wasteful. This is the first time in three years that Argentina – who are the reigning South American champions – have tasted defeat and will come under intense scrutiny back home for this performance and result.
Mexico and Poland are the other two teams in Group C and play later on Tuesday at 4pm. Argentina and Saudi Arabia are back in action on Saturday when they take on the Mexicans and the Poles respectively in a group that is now far more competitive than first predicted.