Messi's Argentina joy short-lived as Albiceleste suffer Saudi Arabia humiliation

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As the World Cup started in earnest on Monday, moving on from the previous day's odd opener, which saw a large number of Qatar fans desert their home team at half-time, both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi faced the media for the first time at the 2022 finals.

The two all-time greats are each appearing at their record-equalling fifth World Cups. The previous four had seen pressure build to a crescendo in Russia in 2018, when both Portugal and Argentina underwhelmed, exiting the tournament in the second round.

There was expectation again this year, but the narrative appeared to have changed a little. Ronaldo is 37, Messi 35; fans would do well to simply enjoy seeing them on this grand global stage for surely the last time.

The pair also seemed to have found peace since the last finals.

"I'd love to win this competition, but if I don't win, I'd still be happy with everything I've done so far," Ronaldo said at Portugal's base camp on Monday, while Messi later added in a pre-match news conference: "I think I'm enjoying it much more now. Before I didn't think about that, I just wanted to play. Now I am trying to enjoy it."

Crucially, Messi, like Ronaldo with Portugal in 2016, has now celebrated success at international level, leading Argentina to Copa America glory a year ago.

The Albiceleste headed into Tuesday's game against Saudi Arabia's one short of Italy's record 37-match unbeaten run.

"The reality is we now play in a much more calm way," said coach Lionel Scaloni. "We don't have that weight on our shoulders. We are always calm when we go on the pitch and like to feel that freedom."

In some ways, this only increased the anticipation for the first outing of a now unburdened Messi in Qatar, and few doubted the Paris Saint-Germain forward would continue to find joy against Saudi Arabia.

It is a country that has invested significantly in football, signing Messi himself as a tourism ambassador while its Public Investment Fund bought resurgent Premier League club Newcastle United. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sat alongside FIFA president Gianni Infantino at Sunday's opening ceremony.

But on the pitch, facing perhaps the greatest player of all time, a 2-1 win for the Saudi team was unimaginable.

That was the case ahead of kick-off, and it was certainly the case 10 minutes in, when Argentina led through a slightly generous penalty converted by Messi, who had earlier seen a low snapshot well saved.

Saudi Arabia looked to be in real trouble when Messi ran through to score again, only for the offside flag to go up – as it did when the VAR spotted Lautaro Martinez had strayed before a sublime finish.

Yet by the time a third Argentina goal was struck off – Messi combining with Martinez – it appeared Saudi Arabia's high-risk, high-line strategy might just be working.

Argentina's seven offsides before the break were the most by one team in a World Cup first half since Spain's nine against the Republic of Ireland 20 years ago.

Backed by a large and noisy group of supporters who had travelled across the border, Herve Renard's men reached the sanctuary of half-time only a goal behind and built from there.

Saleh Al Shehri steered Saudi Arabia's first shot beyond the clutches of Emiliano Martinez and into the bottom-right corner, before a stunning second followed from Salem Al Dawsari in the 53rd minute.

Al Dawsari is now 31 but was once Saudi Arabia's great hope, earning a move to Villarreal but featuring just once as a substitute against Real Madrid, Messi's then rivals at Barcelona.

His 95th-minute volley against Egypt in 2018 gave Saudi Arabia their first World Cup win since 1994. Topping that career highlight appeared unlikely until Tuesday.

Al Dawsari's right-footed finish was to prove the winner, with Messi firing a free-kick over and aiming a header straight at Mohammed Al Owais in a frustrating finale for the well-fancied Argentinians.

Despite the now customary eight additional minutes that became 14 – during which Al Owais endured a couple of nervy moments as he flapped at one deep cross and brutally wiped out team-mate Yasser Al-Shahrani from another – Saudi Arabia bravely held on, and Messi's new-found joy in an Albiceleste shirt was surely over.

The seven-time Ballon d'Or winner now has seven World Cup goals but has not netted in 756 knockout minutes. After this result, Argentina have work to do just to reach that stage.

The Copa triumph changed many things, but one of the great World Cup upsets ensured no end to Messi's agony at least in this tournament.