The failure of the World Cup raises doubts about Argentina’s fitness

DOHA, Qatar (AP) – Unfortunately, it wasn’t just a bad dream for Argentina fans. Your team actually lost 2-1 to Saudi Arabia, one of the biggest upsets in the 92-year history of the World Cup.

Now the pressure is on Lionel Messi and Argentina, who cannot afford to lose their next game against Mexico on Saturday if they are to keep their World Cup hopes alive.

“It’s time to be united, to turn the page and stop thinking about what happened,” Messi said after the humiliating loss to Saudi Arabia, the tournament’s second-lowest team. “Reflect, take the positive to improve what we did wrong and think of Mexico. We’ve always said we’ll try to win every game and now more than ever.”

So much for Argentina, coming to Qatar in ideal form to win a third World Cup after winning last year’s Copa America and going 36 games unbeaten. Now there are doubts everywhere. Are key players fit enough? Does Lionel Scaloni – Argentina’s chance coach – have the experience of dealing with the pressures of a World Cup? And can Messi, now 35, still lead Argentina to the only prize in football to still escape from it?

Worryingly, Messi spoke of “fear” creeping into his team.

“The goal so early (in the second half) hurt us, it confused us,” said Messi. “We knew it could happen in the first game if we didn’t play as well as we do and I think that happened to us. We haven’t found the performance or game that we’ve been demonstrating for a long time.”

In a way, losing to the Saudis was an unusual result. They scored two of their three shots on goal, all of which came in the second half. Argentina could easily have been two or three goals clear at half-time had it not been for a couple of minor offside calls that were only discovered through video review. And Argentina created enough chances late in the game to at least get a draw.

Still, there were enough issues to worry even the most optimistic Argentina fan.

Some players were clearly not in top form. Cristian Romero, the centre-back who was rounded too easily by Saleh Alshehri for the first goal, did not play for English club Tottenham last month with a muscle injury and did not look ready. Likewise, Leandro Paredes and forward Angel Di Maria have only played minutes since October following injuries.

That Romero and Paredes were substituted shortly after Saudi Arabia’s second goal in game 53 was an indication that something was amiss.

Center midfielder Rodrigo De Paul and right-back Nahuel Molina are not regulars at Atletico Madrid and lacked sharpness. De Paul in particular struggled in the end with the unexpected intensity and physicality of the Saudis.

Giovani Lo Celso, a Scaloni favorite but ruled out of the World Cup through injury, was absent from midfield. Centre-back Nicolas Otamendi was a starting XI against Saudi Arabia but Scaloni could opt for Lisandro Martínez against Mexico as he has been improving for Manchester United this season.

In the first half, the Argentine defense looked fragile under limited pressure from the Saudis. That showed during the second half, forcing Messi to drop lower in search of the ball.

Messi insisted the day before the game that he was in good form, despite training for two days individually last week and pictured with padding around his right ankle. It was still a joy to watch him with the ball at his feet in Tuesday’s game and when he was given space he found himself pressed in the second half. At 35, he might find it difficult to play intense matches every four days at the World Cup.

Argentina have three days to sort things out before returning to the Lusail Stadium, where the Saudis pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the World Cup to play Mexico. The 89,000 seat stadium will also host the World Cup final on December 18th.

Goalkeeper Emi Martinez said that Argentina will go into the game against Mexico as if they were playing for the title.

“Saturday is our first World Cup final,” he said, adding that the early defeat could help strengthen the team.

“If we want to be world champions, it’s good to stumble once,” he said. “A stumble is not a fall.”

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Steve Douglas can be reached at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80


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