Early this morning in Qatar, in World Cup 2022 Group C play, the team FIFA ranks 51st in the world defeated the one ranked 3rd by a score of 2-1, and the result was deserved. Playing with a high defensive line and even higher pressing the Saudis discombobulated the Argentines for the majority of the match, catching the Albiceleste offsides ten times.
The match began with a bit of a disconcerting aura as it seemed the officiating was going to be inclined toward the host nation’s number one soccer investment, Barcelona’s Messi, the reason why Qatari-owned BeIn Sports covered La Liga until the diminutive Argentine moved to PSG and then cornered the Ligue 1 broadcasts when Lio moved to Paris. The aura materialized in the officiating as the referee seemed a bit too one-sided allowing the notoriously foul-playing Argentines to leave the match with seven fouls called to the Saudi’s 21. Yeah, that is no typo twenty-one fouls were called against Saudi Arabia. Argentine coach, Lionel Scaloni must have been smiling under his stern frown.
Interestingly, a penalty was called in favor of Argentina in the 9th minute via VAR. The call was a fair one on a Saudi defender’s clear grab of an Argentine in the Saudi penalty area while awaiting a cross. Let us keep track of how many of those are actually called throughout the tourney particularly so early in the match. In any case, the call allowed Lio to put his name up on the scoreboard—Argentina 1-0 Saudi Arabia in the 10th minute. But that was the last time Argentina had any real offensive say in the match. The Saudis were quicker to the ball, always clearing or intercepting, and often making some nice offensive plays of their own.
In a match in which the Argentines dominated possession for 70% of the time and had 15 shots on goal to the Saudi’s three, it was two magnificent goals, the second a goal of the tourney so far, that marked the difference, and they came from Saudis Saleh Alshehri at the 48th-minute and Salem Al Dawsari at the 53rd-minute. The Saudi win destroyed everyone’s pre-tournament bracket and put Group C up for grabs.
Back home in Buenos Aires, the Argentine press minced no words: “An inexplicable team that became a ghost. The result enters the list of the great catastrophes of the selection; the changes failed and the team became a shadow after the flurry of goals from Saudi Arabia,” trumpeted La Nacion.
Continuing the trend of Arab and Islamic teams feeling at home in Qatar and doing well on the pitch, the Tunisians played the Danish even throughout their match and earned the draw and a point. Neither side really had many scoring chances and what opportunities materialized were quickly snuffed by the opposing defense. Group D now moves to a meeting between current champions France and late qualifiers Australia. But Danish coach, Kasper Hjulmand, has to feel an opportunity went begging.
In the key match for Group C, the game which would have provided the winner with the opportunity to progress, and potentially at Argentina’s expense, neither team was able to get the three points in a disappointing display that had only a few scoring chances per team. The match’s highlight was a penalty called in favor of Poland which Robert Lewandowski took only to have Mexican keeper Memo Ochoa save brilliantly to keep his team in the game. Tata Martino did not seem to have the right mix of starters and subs since all of his modifications provided the same lackluster result.
The draw allows Messi and company to win their next two games as expected and in so doing eliminate one of these two hapless sides. Saudi Arabia only needs to draw its next two games to ensure progression. This interesting status means that each game is a final from here on in for all of the teams in the group.
Australia started this match on the right foot and took the lead in the 9th minute with Craig Goodwin finishing off a pretty Aussie counterattack. But the French simply needed to stop sleepwalking and at least put their Rolls Royce of a team into first gear and then maybe into second. In the 27th minute Adrien Rabiot, in the 32nd Olivier Giroud, in the 68th Kylian Mbappe, and in the 71st Giroud again, put a stop to any upsetting thoughts. Australia was playing well in the first half and for about half of the second, but once the French side started to shift gears the outcome was predetermined. In the end, French coach, Didier Deschamps, was able to rest players at will and give others the thrill of being on a World Cup pitch. France thus take their expected Group D lead and make it more work for everyone else.
The news of the day was the Saudi victory, but even the less dramatic scores have begun to shape the tourney.
Photo: Saudi Arabia’s Salem Al Dawsari, Shutterstock ID 2163345773, by Alizada Studios.
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