The goal that could have assured Argentina a glorious start to the 2022 FIFA World Cup stayed on the board for more than a minute, so at least Lautaro Martinez had his moment in the spotlight. He’d earned it, for sure.
According to https://www.sportingnews.com, Martinez executed a brilliant, incisive run to accept a pass alone above the penalty area and then float a just-enough shot over Saudi Arabia goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais. It was ARG 2, KSA 0. Until it was not.
The goal was erased by the new semi-automated video review in use at the World Cup, which indicated Martinez’s left shoulder and arm were beyond the penultimate Saudi defender. That’s soccer in 2022.
This is no excuse for Argentina’s ultimate failure in a 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia. The Albiceleste entered the World Cup as second favorites to win the tournament behind Brazil. The Saudis entered at greater than 500-to-1 to win it all. All but five of Argentina’s 26 players perform in top-5 European leagues. The whole of the Saudi roster is based in its domestic league.
So what the heck happened?
Goals disallowed for offside: Saudi high line worked
Against such attacking talents as Martinez, Angel Di Maria and the great Lionel Messi, Saudi Arabia took a great risk in choosing to keep its defensive line so high up the field. But it was a tactic that totally vexed Argentina, which was called 10 times for offside.
On three of those, Argentina put the ball in the back of the net: once by Messi in the 22nd minute, another by Martinez in the 35th and the one that might have sealed the game in between, in the 28th minute.
Two of those were obvious, caught by the assistant referee and waved off with the flag as soon as they were scored. The second will haunt Argentina — perhaps for a week, should the team recover and go on to win Group C as had been expected, or perhaps for as long as the country plays its favorite sport, because this figures to be the last World Cup ever for Messi.
Argentina should have been able to deal with KSA’s tactic. They’re not the first team ever to play a high line, but the Argentines appeared to be in such a hurry to turn this into a blowout they failed to hold their runs and create legal scoring opportunities. They wound up being called 10 times for offside.
Saudi Arabia played Argentina physical
If you watched the USA vs. Wales game the day before, you saw this there, too. It’s becoming apparent that spreading out fouls against smaller, more skilled teams will be countenanced by officiating crews at this World Cup.
Had it been just one game, one lousy ref, that could have been written off as an exception. But two games represents a trend. Saudi Arabia put as many Argentine players on the ground as possible, as often as possible.
Six Saudi players ended the game on yellow cards. They committed a total of 21 fouls. It was to their benefit to make the game as ugly as possible. And so they did.
That helped contribute to Argentina’s debilitating sense of panic late in the game, as they chased a tying goal. They anticipated having little time on the ball because the Saudis were not averse to attacking physically — though not recklessly, so as to create a red-card situation.
The VAR image that ruled out Lautaro Martínez's goal for offside 👀 pic.twitter.com/MZESRr5eL0— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) November 22, 2022
Saudi Arabia took their chances
The Saudi goal that tied the game in the 48th minute came off a needless pass to a double-covered Messi near the halfway line, where he was off-balance and couldn’t field the ball.
That turnover did not seem like a lot at the moment, until midfielder Abdulelah Almalki chipped a sweet pass forward to striker Saleh Alshehri, who gathered it, got the defender on his shoulder and cleared enough space to fire a left-footed shot. Solid strike, poor defending, worse goalkeeping, and it was 1-1.
The second goal started with a goal kick that should have been no problem for Argentina to manage, but two players went for the ball without touching it, leaving the Saudis to move forward along the right sideline and create an attack.
It should have ended after a sizzling shot was headed away from the goal line, but Salem Aldawsari dodged four Argentine defenders after fielding that deflection with a touch that required him to chase down the ball as it rolled six feet to the side.
It shouldn’t have been an opportunity, but he made it one, and his shot could not have been more ferocious. Or accurate.
The Saudis attempted only three shots total.