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Loss to Saudi Arabia is a crusher for Argentina’s World Cup title hopes

Saudi Arabia's Salem Al Dawsari was turning cartwheels after scoring to put his team ahead for good against Argentina.Clive Brunskill/Getty

So much for Lionel Messi ever winning a World Cup. After a 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in their opening match Tuesday, the Argentines are facing an uphill climb. And even if they recover, their chances of capturing a third title are slim.

How slim? Only one team has captured the title after losing its first game — Spain in 2010.

Messi seemed discouraged, partly because Argentina was off in its timing, and also because its attack was easily defused by Saudi Arabia’s tactics. The result revived memories of the frustrations Messi experienced with the national team from 2005, when he was 18 years old, until last year, when Argentina took the Copa America championship.

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Lately, though, the Albiceleste developed chemistry under coach Lionel Scaloni, and the team took a 36-game unbeaten streak into Tuesday. But things fell apart during a five-minute span early in the second half, as Argentina squandered a 1-0 lead provided by a 10th-minute Messi penalty kick.

Argentina appeared vulnerable in central defense, as 34-year-old Nicolás Otamendi and Cuti Romero struggled to contend with the Saudi forwards. Saudi Arabia played a high line with four defenders, playing Argentina offside and disrupting its rhythm in the first half. Instead of staying high up the field, Messi began retreating to get involved in the action — and when he did, the Saudis collapsed on him.

That double-teaming led to a turnover in the center circle and a quick-strike equalizer by Saleh Al-Shehri in the 48th minute. The goal gave the Green Eagles momentum, and they broke the deadlock when Salem Al-Dawsari scored in the 53rd.

On both goals, Argentina appeared to have the situation covered. After Messi’s turnover, the Saudis went two-on-four but were able to get off a clear shot. On the second goal, seven Albiceleste players were in the penalty area, but Al-Dawsari got off an unstoppable attempt after an inspired turn among three opponents.

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Argentina seemed capable of converting several times. But it had three first-half goals annulled by VAR, one questionable (despite the so-called infallibility of technology). With a multiple-goal lead, Argentina certainly would have been able to hang on. As well as Saudi Arabia played, this result can be considered a one-off.

But that is the nature of the World Cup. There is not much room for error, and the margin decreases as the tournament progresses.

The Albiceleste should be able to get back on track against Mexico on Saturday. But even if they win Group C, the road ahead is difficult. In the second round, Denmark or France likely awaits. That would set up a quarterfinal date, possibly against England or the Netherlands.

Argentina's Lionel Messi reacts after missing a chance against Saudi Arabia.Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press

This defeat recalled 1990, when Argentina lost, 1-0, to Cameroon in the tournament opener in Milan. Then, Argentina was led by coach Carlos Bilardo, a master tactician, and Diego Maradona. The supporting cast was not strong, but they were able to adjust, reaching the final before losing to West Germany on a controversial penalty kick.

Scaloni, 44, is the youngest coach in this World Cup, and might not be Bilardo’s equal in resourcefulness. But this Argentina roster is among the strongest in this tournament, and a couple of tweaks could give the team a boost.

One problem to overcome is overdependence on Messi, which makes Argentina predictable. At 35, Messi has lost some of his dynamism; he is still effective, still difficult to stop, but in one-off elimination games, the opposition can concentrate on stopping him and slow up the Albiceleste.

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Saudi coach Herve Renard, who has guided two teams to the African Nations Cup title, set up his team to capitalize on Argentina’s insistence on playing through Messi.

As for the Saudis, they are receiving strong support by playing in a neighboring country, and they are missing one of their best players — Fahad Al-Muwallad, a 5-foot-7-inch, 155-pound forward who was cut from the team after a threatened WADA ban for furosemide use.

With the tournament being staged in the midst of European league seasons, it was expected there would be upsets. There could be more upcoming.

Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard oversaw one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history on Tuesday.Catherine Ivill/Getty

The level of Saudi Arabia’s play also served to help revive interest in group play. The tournament opener, Ecuador’s 2-0 victory over Qatar, indicated that some of the 32 teams simply do not have enough quality to challenge, even in the first round. That is also a bad sign for the 2026 World Cup, which will have 48 teams entered.

One advantage Qatar provides is that stadiums were constructed specifically for the tournament, so playing-field dimensions meet FIFA requirements. The field width makes a difference, rewarding both tactical and technical play.

Few of the 2026 stadiums — including Gillette — are wide enough, and they will have to be jackhammered into shape. Also, most of the Qatar surfaces are well-groomed grass; the hybrid ones play fast, and can throw off skillful play, as was apparent in the Netherlands-Senegal match at Al Thumama Stadium. The next contest at that stadium will be Costa Rica vs. Spain on Wednesday.

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Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at frankdellapa@gmail.com.