Now the pressure is on Lionel Messi and Argentina, who cannot afford to lose their next match against Mexico on Saturday if they want to keep their World Cup hopes alive.
“It’s time to be united, turn the page and no longer think about what happened,” Messi said after the humiliating defeat against Saudi Arabia, the second-lowest ranked team in the tournament. “Take reflections, take the positives to improve what we did wrong and think about Mexico. We always said we were going to look to win every game and now more than ever.”
So much for Argentina arriving in Qatar in ideal shape to win a third World Cup, having won the Copa America last year and been on a 36-game unbeaten run. Now there are doubts springing up everywhere. Are key players fit enough? Does Lionel Scaloni — Argentina’s accidental coach — have the experience to handle the pressure of a World Cup? And can Messi, now 35, still carry Argentina to the one prize in soccer still to elude him?
Worryingly, Messi spoke of “anxiety” that crept into his team.
“The goal so early (in the second half) hurt us, it made us confused,” Messi said. “We knew it could happen in the first game, if we didn’t play in the best way we were doing, and I think that happened to us. We didn’t find the performance or the game that we’ve been demonstrating for a long time.”
In some ways, the loss to the Saudis was a freak result. They scored with two of their three shots on goal, all of which came in the second half. Argentina could easily have been two or three goals ahead by halftime if it wasn’t for a couple of marginal offside calls only discovered by video review. And Argentina created enough chances late in the game to take at least a draw.
Yet, there were enough problems to make even the most optimistic Argentina fan concerned.
Some players clearly weren't at peak fitness. Cristian Romero, the center back rounded too easily by Saleh Alshehri for the first goal, hasn't played for the last month at English club Tottenham because of a muscle injury and didn't look ready. Similarly, Leandro Paredes and striker Angel Di Maria have played limited minutes since October after injuries.
That Romero and Paredes were substituted soon after Saudi Arabia's second goal in the 53rd was an indication something was not right.
Center midfielder Rodrigo De Paul and right back Nahuel Molina are not regulars for Atletico Madrid and lacked sharpness. De Paul, in particular, ended up struggling with the Saudis' unexpected intensity and physicality.
Giovani Lo Celso, a favorite of Scaloni but out of the World Cup because of injury, was missed in midfield. Center back Nicolas Otamendi started against Saudi Arabia, but Scaloni may opt for Lisandro Martínez against Mexico, given his improving form for Manchester United this season.
There was already a fragile look to Argentina's defense in the first half, under limited pressure from the Saudis. That was exposed throughout the second half, forcing Messi to drop deeper in search of the ball.
Messi insisted the day before the game that he was in good shape, despite training individually two days last week and being pictured with padding around his right ankle. He was still a joy to watch in Tuesday’s game with the ball at his feet and when given space but he found himself crowded out in the second half. At 35, he could find it difficult to play intense matches every four days at the World Cup.
Argentina has three days to sort things out before they return to Lusail stadium, where the Saudis caused one of the World Cup's biggest upsets, to play Mexico. The 89,000-seat stadium will also stage the World Cup final on Dec. 18,
Goalkeeper Emi Martinez said that Argentina will go into the Mexico game as if they were playing for the title.
“Saturday is our first World Cup final,” he said, adding the early defeat may help galvanize the team.
“If we want to be world champions, it's good to have a stumble," he said. "A stumble is not a fall.”
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80