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Saudi Arabia Had Too Much Fight For Argentina To Handle

Salem Aldawsari of Saudi Arabia celebrates as he scores the goal during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group C match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia at Lusail Stadium on November 22, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar.
Stefan Matzke/Getty Images

Soccer is a wild sport, isn’t it?

Entering the 2022 World Cup, Argentina was considered one of the big favorites to win the tournament, and definitely the odds-on favorite not just to win Group C, but sweep it. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia looked to be the worst team in the tournament, and anything but zero points and zero goals scored would be considered a mild surprise.

Well, so much for that!

In the first true shock of this World Cup, Saudi Arabia not only beat Argentina 2–1, but absolutely dominated the South Americans tactically, pitching as close to a perfect game as an underdog can under these conditions. This wasn’t a fluke victory, but rather a Saudi team that understood the assignment and forced Argentina to play the exact game that would facilitate a result like this.

It starts with Hervé Renard. The Saudi Arabian manager is no stranger to international tournament success, having won the Africa Cup of Nations with both Zambia and the Ivory Coast. The Frenchman set Saudi Arabia up in what looked to be a maniacal manner, but ended up being the key to the match. The Green Falcons came out with an extremely high defensive line, playing its center backs quite close to the midfield, while the rest of the team squeezed Argentina whenever they got too close to breaking the line.

This is a risky strategy, and Argentina came close to punishing that risk several times. Through ball after through ball, the Albiceleste continuously got behind the Saudi defenders for easy chances against goalkeeper Mohammed Alowais. In the first half, Argentina put the ball in the back of the net four times. The only problem is that the Saudi line was so disciplined and executed its offside traps so well that three of those Argentine goals were ruled out.

The only goal in the first half came from a soft penalty call against Saudi Arabia and a cool and calm Lionel Messi penalty.

Even leading 1–0 at halftime, though, Argentina was flummoxed on how to increase its lead, with an eye towards any potential goal difference shenanigans in the group. That would turn out to be putting the cart before the horse, though.

As the second half kicked on, Saudi Arabia looked like absolute world-beaters. The press kept going at a fervent pace, but the team also backed off the high line just enough to make sure that it could stay in the game long enough for one of the many bounces that can decide international soccer matches. Sure enough, Saudi Arabia got two.

The first came in the 48th minute, with Argentina out of sorts from the continued intensity of its opponents. Abdulelah Almalki hit a beautiful long pass that skipped over the entire Argentina defense, finding Saleh Alshehri, who hit a wobbly but perfectly aimed shot into the corner to tie the game.

Just five minutes later, this match saw the best goal of the World Cup to date. Winger Salem Aldawsari got the ball just inside the box on the left side, turned and, as his momentum carried him away from the goal, ripped a gorgeous strike that Argentine goalie Emi Martínez could only get a hand on before it crashed into the back of the net.

After that, Saudi Arabia never really threatened again, which was by design. Holding a lead against such a massive favorite, Renard had his team continue to press but dropped the defensive line even further, so that it looked like a normal high line rather than the skyscraper tightrope it had deployed in the first half. This, combined with Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni’s substitutions, gave the run of the game to Argentina once more. Saudi Arabia then defended like absolute madmen for a very long time, with Alowais stepping up to make a handful of the best saves this World Cup has seen.

After a long stoppage time that pushed the final minutes tally to 104, Saudi Arabia finished off this massive moment in its soccer history, and Argentina is left to pick up the pieces and fast; any faltering from here on out could and probably will mean the end of its tournament.

There’s no sugarcoating this: Saudi Arabia was the better team on Tuesday. It might have relinquished the majority of possession and chances to its opponents, but Renard’s gameplan allowed his team to have numbers back at all times. Argentina’s best and often only option was to filter the ball out wide to Ángel Di María on the right, only for the Juventus winger to float crosses into a mass of green shirts. Sure, Alowais had to come up big to secure the three points for the Saudis, but he wasn’t often left out to rot by his defense. Instead, the whole team moved as one and blocked off every dangerous Argentina attack down the middle, comfortable in its rigidity.

This is what’s great about the World Cup, for everyone except Argentina fans. A team as outmatched, talent-wise, as Saudi Arabia can still execute a plan to perfection and get two fantastic finishes to beat the third-ranked team in the world. It’s still early enough that this could just be a blip for Argentina, but make no mistake: the South Americans are now scrambling not because they blew it, but because they ran into a team that knew exactly how to ruin their day. This is Saudi Arabia’s victory much more than it is Argentina’s loss, and that makes it all the better for them going forward. Is Saudi Arabia going to be scared of Mexico or Poland, after beating Argentina? Almost certainly not, and that makes this opening shocker something to build on rather than just one glorious afternoon in Lusail.

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