Argentina’s fall against Saudi Arabia may have set them on a shining path

It may feel as if a sporting lifetime has passed since Saudi Arabia turned Argentina over, but it was only three and a half weeks ago. A massive shock that animated the whole World Cup, it begged many questions, not least about the prospects for Lionel Messi and his team at this tournament.

It turned out that those prospects were rosy, and any footballing obituaries now seem hasty as Argentina have since won five games on the trot in Qatar to stand 90 minutes (or 120, or 145 with injury time) from history. On reflection, then, the Saudi upset seems even more extraordinary. Given Argentina’s 36-game unbeaten run going into the tournament, what was it that the Green Falcons had that dozens of other teams did not?

Good luck is probably the best place to start. Argentina were 1-0 up within the first 15 minutes and had three more goals disallowed for offside before half-time. The second of these, finished by Lautaro Martínez, was the kind of marginal call that only VAR could award.

Argentina had numerous opportunities across the match and by far the better chances. InfoGol’s calculation of the expected goals in the match rated Argentina at 2.29 compared with 0.16 for the Saudis.

It seems clear that Argentina’s dominance in the first half led to complacency in the second, when the Saudis mounted their comeback. The move that led to Saleh al-Shehri’s equaliser began with Messi being dispossessed after a loose touch. WhoScored says he has had seven poor touches in the entire tournament. After a quick ball forward, Shehri was able to get beyond a laggardly challenge from Cristian Romero to shoot across Emiliano Martínez to score.

The second goal was worse, Nicolás Otamendi underhitting a clearance before Ángel Di María, Nahuel Molina and Rodrigo De Paul undercooked their challenges to let Salem al-Dawsari have a free shot, which he buried with aplomb.

A valiant backs-to-the-wall defensive effort then saw Saudi Arabia over the line. It was marked less by defensive shape than by individual bravery, with defenders throwing themselves into challenge after challenge. It was as if they were playing in their final, and Saudi Arabia left themselves so drained that they could never match the same levels. Equally, Argentina, after conceding their advantage, were never able to recover a tempo sufficient to win. A period of intense aggression from the opposition – something matched perhaps only by Australia in the second half of their last-16 fixture – had been enough to unsettle the Albiceleste. Argentina have not been behind in a game since, so the question of how they might respond a second time has not been asked.

One final factor that should be taken into consideration is the nature of the support that day. Whereas the crowd appeared to be split 50-50 at the Lusail Stadium, it was the Saudi fans who created the noise, especially after their team’s first goal went in. Argentina have not played in an environment like that since, and will not on Sunday either.

The Qatar World Cup has turned out to be the equivalent to a home tournament for Argentina (and Morocco). They will be backed by a monstrous choir once again in the final against France.

So Saudi Arabia rode a special set of circumstances to beat the two-times winners. Their determination, energy and will to succeed could prove a model for others, but France play their own way, seemingly at their best when they feel affronted. But it is also true that whatever the Saudis achieved, Lionel Scaloni looked at his side and saw weaknesses, flaws that he immediately sought to correct.

Julián Álvarez, Alexis Mac Allister and Enzo Fernández did not start. Their introduction at various points later in the group stage brought elements of energy and dynamism that have transformed the team.

The old legs of Di María and Papu Gómez have been retired from the field. Any complacency, or a sense that Argentina could win a game at half pace, has also been notable by its absence. Whatever your opinion of the frenzied behaviour that marked the closing stages of the quarter-final with the Netherlands, there is no doubt that Argentina – deservedly two goals up with 10 minutes to go – refused to be dragged under after a comeback that deserves to sit alongside the Saudi victory as one of the highlights of this tournament. Their penalty shootout victory, meanwhile, was a triumph of confident focus.

Finally, the obligatory Messi paragraph. Something remarkable has happened to him this past few weeks. Against Saudi Arabia he seemed what a 35-year-old legend ought to be; a player with undimmed technique but an athlete in decline. Not only was that observation incorrect but it has been going further into reverse with each match. Starting with his match-winning performance against Mexico and until his fateful haunting of Josko Gvardiol, Messi has got sharper, faster and more clinical. He has played every minute of every game and has only one more match to achieve full, unimpeachable immortality. The Saudis must be grateful to have caught him when they did.