On unbeaten run
Argentina were unbeaten in 36 games. They last lost a match – against Brazil – in the 2019 Copa America semifinals. Since then, they have won 25 games and drawn 11 across international friendlies, World Cup qualifiers and 2021 Copa America, which they won defeating Brazil. If they stay unbeaten against Saudi Arabia in their World Cup opener, they will equal Italy’s record of longest unbeaten streak in international football.
Super duper coach
Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard is a bit of a legend in international football. His coaching career has spanned 23 years, 13 teams, and two major trophies. The Frenchman – after retiring as a player – began his coaching journey in some of the lowest rungs of club football, started in 1999 with SC Draguignan, whom he guided to three back-to-back promotions, before joining Cambridge in 2003-04, who were in third division of English football back then. After years of toil, he found success in Africa, where he guided two teams to continental titles –Zambia in 2012 and Ivory Coast in 2015. He then led Morocco to the World Cup in 2018, before joining Saudi the following year. Known as a man ahead of his time, this will be one of the biggest tests for 54-year-old.
Some might remember Diego Maradona’s goal at the world cup he would be banned for drugs. A nice push to the left, and then came the curler, (from not so dissimilar position) and he would run straight to the camera and peer at the world! But it was Messi under the spotlight here. Second minute of a match, his first game with the national team after a long time.. it could be seen as an encouraging sign for Argentina and Messi that he got a shot on target inside first two minutes. Ominous for Saudi, of course, as it turned out. And it was Messi who slotted that in!
Then came the almost penalty. Was that a penalty? Saudi Arabia should feel short changed at that decision to award a penalty after a VAR ruling put the matter in the referee’s hands.
Penalty or not, Lionel Messi stepped up, waited until the last second to see where the goalkeeper was heading and passed the ball calmly into the net. Messi has his first of the World Cup and Argentina lead by a goal against Saudi Arabia.
An earlier Lautaro Martinez finish might have been ice-cold, but it was borne out of some frenetic pressing on the left flank by Argentina. Unfortunately, the goal got disallowed because Messi was offside.
Saudi high line
Were Saudis doing the risky thing? Trying the off-side trap, instead of heavy man-marking, with Messi and co. though it admittedly worked twice?
It was a surprising tactic especially after watching how other Asian sides, Iran especially, lined up against opponents far superior to them. It’s a high risk/reward strategy, one that would surely make someone like a Klopp happy. But Saudi are already paying for it – then again, they were always likely to concede against the Argentines. So why not go down fighting.
Also, that’s how Saudi under Renard have always played. They didn’t go into a shell or change their strategy for this game. Five offsides already for Argentina, showed they are able to find right passing channels. Challenge for Saudi would be to maintain the intensity required to play this style – close down players, keep focus so defenders maintain the offside trap – for 90 minutes. Argentina have been caught offside seven times in this match. That is more than any team at the 2018 World Cup in one match or in this tournament so far, as per Opta.
Nothing less than what Saudi Arabia deserve.
Renard’s men tore up the script. They have been direct, physical, pressed high, and got into Argentina’s faces. Their defensive shape may be a bit erratic, but it allows for them to win the ball back, and win it higher up the pitch, allowing them to create space and opportunity, all while unsettling Argentina’s midfield. A solid game plan has them in the lead.
For Argentina, a lot was at stake in the next 30-odd minutes, including an unbeaten run that stretches 36 games and 3 years. They last lost a match – against Brazil – in the 2019 Copa America semifinals. Since then, they have won 25 games and drawn 11 across international friendlies, World Cup qualifiers and 2021 Copa America, which they won defeating Brazil.
They were looking to equal Italy’s record of longest unbeaten streak in international football (37) and have a little more than half hour to salvage something from this match.
But Saudi Arabia absolutely deserved that equaliser. They’ve been brave in holding strong to their beliefs, coming in with an incredible high line against an attacking trio of Di Maria, Martinez and Messi. That line was responsible for winning the ball in the middle of the pitch that led to the forward push for the goal.
And then came the second
And then as if the footballing gods wanted to punish Argentina further for their half measures, the Saudis scored again. One can make the case that Salem Al-Dawsari was not challenged well enough in the box right before he rifled a curler onto goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez’s left. One could also say that Argentina have been neither here nor there with their defensive line. Playing from far in their own half has invited pressure from a Saudi team that is up for a fight knowing that there truly isn’t much to lose.
World Cup favorites Argentina were now down by a goal to Asian powerhouses Saudi Arabia.
Will there be Rolls Royce for Saudi Arabia goal scorers?
Saudi Arabia are known to open their hearts and purse strings to their World Cup goal-scorers. In their World Cup debut in 1994, they were 500-1 outsiders but they raised the bar at the big stage. Against Belgium, they scored a goal that for long was considered the country’s best-ever goal. Striker Saeed Al-Owairan came with a magical 70-yard run to find the net. Al-Owairan was to get a Rolls-Royce once he returned home. At the home of Al Dawsar and Al Shehri, they would be upgrading their garages.
Meanwhile, Lionel Messi turned his face away as soon as Salem Al Dawsari’s curler hit the back of the net. It was more than a bit ironic that the Saudi attacker showed a piece of sublime skill one often associates with the Argentine legend. The South American favourites and their coach didn’t know what hit them in the second half as two goals in five minutes set the stage for potentially one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history. But Argetina may have only themselves to blame for treating their opening fixture as little more than a warm-up game to ease into the tournament. They would have thought that a 60-70 percent performance would get the job done. However, sport has a habit of biting back those who take it for granted.
The most iconic white shirt in football
If Saudi Arabia pulls off a miracle against Argentina, their manager Herve Renard’s white shirt is likely to become the most iconic in world football. The white shirt, worn unbuttoned at the top, is a sort of superstition for Renard.
He told Espire how and why he started wearing the shirt during games.
“We (Zambia) were playing in the second game of the (2010) Africa Cup of Nations against Cameroon,” Renard recalled to Esquire. “I wore a light blue shirt, but we lost 3-2 so in the following game, I wore a white shirt. We won and finished first in the group, in front of Cameroon.”
From then on the white shirt has been the Frenchman’s favourite.
“Of course I have lost some games since then,” laughs the Frenchman. “Maybe I even lost a lot. But I also won many. I like this style but I’d say the weather has to be nice. When I coached in England, the white shirt in December was not possible. Or maybe this is the reason I wasn’t successful in England!”
The club he coached in England was Cambridge United, one which avoided relegation when he was manager.
Top Saudi clubs were privatised from state control in last few years
Divesting from the top four Saudi Pro League domestic football clubs in the last few years, the Saudi state kick-started a system that freed their running from excessive top-down control. The team is almost entirely home-based, owing to the financial clout, but that doesn’t necessarily equate state ownership. Simon Chadwick, director of Eurasian Sport at Em Lyon Business School, had told Express last year that the new Saudi foray into loosening control set it apart from the Chinese pathway of micro-controlling their football. “Now what Saudi Arabia is trying to do is to privatise those clubs because the Saudi government believes by privatising them it forces them to become more business like and strategic in how they operate. They’re not constantly looking for state handouts, for state to tell them what to do. They’ve got to make revenues, make good commercial decisions. They’ve got to manage labour, their players, the passion and there are lessons there for excessive state intervention,” he had said in 2021.