Saudi Arabia produced a monumental World Cup upset by launching an extraordinary second half comeback to beat one of the pre-tournament favourites Argentina 2-1 at a pulsating Lusail Stadium.
The Asian side, ranked 51st in the world, recorded just their fourth-ever tournament victory – and their second since 1994 – to end a 36-match unbeaten run from a star-studded Argentinian side led by Lionel Messi.
Messi’s bid to win international football’s biggest prize in his fifth and final appearance got off to the perfect start when he rolled in a penalty after just 10 minutes.
Argentina dominated the first half and had three goals disallowed, but they were left stunned by Saudi Arabia’s improvement after the break.
Superb finishes from Saleh Al-Shehri and Salem Al-Dawsari in the space of four minutes turned the game on its head, and the Saudis defended bravely to see out one of the biggest results in their history.
Herve Renard’s side are now in a strong position to reach the knockout stages for the first time since in 28 years, with games against Group C rivals Poland and Mexico still to come.
All eyes were on Messi ahead of what the man himself admitted will be his final World Cup and, in his own words, the “last chance to make my dream a reality””.
It didn’t take him long to make his presence felt, as the 35-year-old had a dangerous shot well saved by Mohammed Al Owais inside two minutes.
The breakthrough soon arrived when referee Slavko Vincic awarded Argentina a penalty following a VAR review, adjudging Leandro Paredes to have been illegally wrestled to the ground at a corner.
Messi stepped up, waited for the keeper to move, and rolled a typically calm spot kick into the bottom corner to open his account in Qatar.
The goal saw him become the first Argentinian to score in four different World Cups, overtaking Gabriel Batistuta and Diego Maradona’s record of finding the net in three.
Saudi Arabia coach Renard lined his team up with a very high defensive line, and they were repeatedly inches away from being punished as Argentina had three first-half goals ruled out for offside.
First Messi raced onto a long ball and slotted home, before Lautaro Martinez finished well twice, but on all three occasions the offside flag denied Argentina a goal that would’ve doubled their lead.
The Saudis hung on until half time with a one-goal deficit, but they suffered a blow when captain Salman Al-Faraj looked devastated as he was forced off with injury.
Saudi Arabia were a team transformed in the second half and netted a superb equaliser in the 49th minute when Al-Shehri held off Cristian Romero and guided a shot into the far corner to score with his team’s first effort of the game.
Just four minutes later, they had completed the comeback. Al-Dawsari plucked the ball out of the air, cut inside two defenders and whipped a stunning shot into the far top corner.
It was just the kind of moment of individual brilliance that Argentina needed to get back into the game, but the South Americans couldn’t find a way through a resilient and aggressive Saudi defence.
Al Owais made some good saves, denying Nicolas Tagliafico from close range and holding tame headers from Messi and substitute Julian Alvarez.
The pressure grew as eight minutes of stoppage time began, but it was disrupted by a nasty head injury to Yasir Al Shahrani, who needed to be replaced but gave a thumbs up to the crowd to show he was OK.
There were scenes of elation at the final whistle, as Saudi Arabia saw out a deserved win thanks to a wonderful second half performance.
TALKING POINT – SAUDI ARABIA’S GREATEST DAY
Before this, Saudi Arabia had only won four World Cup matches, two of which came all the way back in 1994 – the last and only time they reached the knockout stages.
This, their second victory at the tournament in the last 28 years, is surely their greatest ever. Previously, they’ve beaten Morocco and Belgium at USA ’94, and Egypt four years ago in Russia.
But taking down this Argentina side, led by Messi and considered one of the tournament favourites, will go down as one of the greatest upsets in tournament history – and possibly the biggest moment in Saudi Arabian football history.
PLAYER OF THE MATCH – SALEM AL-DAWSARI
There were contenders all over the pitch for Saudi Arabia in the second half, with goalkeeper Al Owais in particular putting in a strong showing.
But Al-Dawsari deserves recognition for producing the moment of sublime, world-class quality that made this result possible for Saudi Arabia.
His goal will be remembered and talked about for years to come, and the 31-year-old – who also scored the winner against Egypt four years ago – showed up Messi by delivering when the Argentinian great couldn’t.
Argentina: E. Martinez 5; Molina 6, Romero 5, Otamendi 6, Tagliafico 6; De Paul 6, Paredes 6, Gomez 6; Messi 7, L. Martinez 6, Di Maria 6
Subs: Acuna 6, Lisandro Martinez 6, Alvarez 6, Fernandez 6
Saudi Arabia: Al Owais 8; Abdulhamid 7, Altambakti 7, Al-Bolayhi 6, Al Shahrani 7; Al-Faraj 6, Al Malki 6, Kanno 7; Al-Buraikan 7, Al-Shehri 8, Al-Dawsari 8
Subs: Al Abid 6, Ghanam 6, Al Amri N/A, Asiri 6, Burayk N/A
10’ MESSI SCORES!
The referee goes to the monitor for a look and saw Paredes being wrestled to the ground in a busy box from the corner. Penalty given, and Messi rolls the spot kick calmly into the bottom corner as he saw the keeper going the other way.
23’ MESSI GOAL DISALLOWED!
A wry smile from Messi, who sticks the ball in the net calmly, but the flag was up for offside. That high defensive line from the Saudis is a bit of a risk, but Argentina haven’t quite caught them out yet – Messi was inches offside there as he raced after a ball in behind.
30’ GOAL DISALLOWED!
It’s offside again! Argentina are denied what would’ve been a fantastic goal as VAR tells the referee Lautaro was offside.
36’ THIRD GOAL DISALLOWED!
Would you believe it? It’s a THIRD offside goal for Argentina! Messi slips in Lautaro, who finishes well, but the offside flag goes up again! Argentina’s timing has just been a fraction off so far.
49’SAUDI ARABIA EQUALISE! 1-1!
Extraordinary! Saudi Arabia have levelled out of nowhere! Al-Shehri is the hero, holding off a defender and guiding a shot into the bottom far corner past Martinez. Game on!
55’ 2-1 SAUDI ARABIA, UNBELIEVABLE!
What. A. Goal! Astonishing scenes at the Lusail Stadium as Al-Dawsari scores a STUNNING strike to put Saudi Arabia ahead! He cuts inside and whips a shot into the far top corner, after taking the ball out of the sky with a superb first touch. It’s a fantastic individual goal, Martinez got fingertips to it but couldn’t keep it out. Wow!