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DOHA : Lionel Messi is urging Argentina to unite and deliver a compelling response to the “hard blow” of an opening-match defeat by Saudi Arabia at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™.
Messi raised the possibility of an Argentina cruise – expected in many quarters – when he converted from the penalty spot after 10 minutes in Lusail. Lionel Scaloni’s team repeatedly threatened to extend their advantage and had three ‘goals’ chalked off for offside.
And the courageous Saudis stunned their illustrious opponents with two goals inside five second-half minutes to turn the game on its head – and world football’s established order upside down.
Defeat leaves Argentina – whose 36-match unbeaten run went up in smoke – very little margin for error in games against Mexico on Saturday and Robert Lewandowski-spearheaded Poland next Wednesday.
“There are no excuses,” said Messi. “It is a very hard blow for everyone, we didn’t expect to start like this. We are going to be more united than ever. This group is strong and we have shown it. This is a situation we did not have to go through in a long time. Now we have to show this is a real group.”
Argentina losing to Saudi Arabia would qualify as a shock by any reckoning. But the result assumes additional significance in the context of the South Americans’ form over the past three years.
Coach Scaloni’s side last suffered defeat way back in July 2019, against Brazil. They were seeking to equal Italy’s international record undefeated 37-match sequence on Tuesday – and only last summer beat Brazil in their own back yard to claim the CONMEBOL Copa America and end Messi’s extended wait for international success.
Argentina further established their position among the World Cup favourites when they comfortably beat Italy in the relaunched CONMEBOL-UEFA Cup of Champions match at Wembley in June.
But Messi’s side, who lost a World Cup match they were leading at half-time for the first time since the 1930 final against Uruguay, were left to address a number of shortcomings following their Qatar debut.
Saleh Al Shehri levelled for Saudi Arabia three minutes after the restart and a beautiful shot into the top corner from Salem Al Dawsari won the game for a side that had only two victories from 10 matches prior to the tournament.
“Things happen for a reason,” added Messi.” We have to prepare for what’s coming, we have to win [against Mexico and Poland] and it depends on us. We knew that Saudi Arabia was a team with good players, that moves the ball well and advances the [defensive] line a lot.
“We had worked on it, but that’s why we had many goals ruled out. Perhaps we did not find the right moment to avoid falling into the trap.”
Argentina reached the final of the Italy 1990 World Cup despite being similarly stunned by unfancied Cameroon in their opening fixture. And Messi, hoping to feature in six more matches over the next three-and-a-half weeks, added: “It’s the first game. It’s up to us to correct what we did wrong, [and] try to get back to the base of who we are.”