After all the negative talk in the lead-up, and the inescapable sense of unease that this opening match could turn up a humiliating experience for the host nation, it was tempting to wonder what all the fuss was about after Russia got the tournament started with an emphatic victory that was every bit as comfortable as the scoreline suggests.
The lowest-ranked team in the tournament – Saudi Arabia will surely assume that title by the time these finals are over – registered their first win in eight matches to put a smile on the face of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and allay those fears that a home World Cup would be some sort of ordeal for Stanislav Cherchesov and his players. That they were playing Saudi Arabia clearly helped.
Juan Antonio Pizzi’s team looked hopelessly out of their depth and it is difficult to overstate just how poorly they performed, in particular in defence, where they were a danger to themselves almost every time Russia attacked.
Aleksandr Golovin, the gifted CSKA Moscow midfielder, set up two goals and dispatched a fine free-kick with the last kick of the game but the best performer was Denis Cheryshev, who came off the bench to score twice, with his second a wonderful arcing lob with the outside of his left boot that is sure to be shown over and over again during the coming days.
Artem Dzyuba, who had pleaded with the Russian press only 24 hours before the game to stop being so critical of the team, was also on the scoresheet moments after his introduction as a substitute, with the other goal scored by Yuri Gazinskiy only 12 minutes into a game that could not end quickly enough for Saudi Arabia.
It is a measure of how bad Saudi Arabia were that Pizzi was asked after the game whether he was worried about his future, mindful of the fact that managers tend not to hang around long in a country which has made around 40 coaching changes since 1994 and three in as many months last year.
Questions have also been asked about whether Cherchesov is the right man for Russia but this resounding win was the perfect response and drew personal praise from Putin. “The head of state called me with congratulations and asked me to share thanks with the team and to keep playing like that,” the manager revealed.
The only blemish on the evening from Russia’s point of view was a potentially serious injury to Alan Dzagoev, who pulled up abruptly with a hamstring problem midway through the first half. One of Russia’s most influential players, the midfielder was in agony and clearly upset. “He was in severe pain. His injury could be quite unpleasant and he could [be out of] the tournament,” Cherchesov said.
The contribution of Cheryshev, who replaced Dzagoev in a change that led to Golovin playing in a more advanced attacking role through the centre, suggests that Russia may have a more than able deputy within the squad, with the Villarreal winger hugely impressive on the left.
Saudi Arabia, however, were obliging opponents throughout and it was alarming just how easily Russia were able to prise them open on the counter-attack, pretty much whenever they seized possession. Remarkably Saudi had 61% of the ball, yet they generally passed with little purpose and were always vulnerable to being caught on the break.
The manner with which Gazinskiy gave Russia the lead rather set the tone. Golovin delivered an inswinging cross from the left, after Saudi had failed to clear a corner, and two Russia players were waiting to head home at the far post. Gazinskiy accepted the invitation after Tassir al-Jassim lost his footing and Russia never looked back.
Although Saudi’s defending was also awful in the lead-up to Russia’s second goal, there was still much to admire about the way Cheryshev dispatched his chance. Roman Zobnin, teed up by Golovin, sold the substitute a little short with a square pass that encouraged two defenders, Osama Hawsawi and Mohammed al-Burayk, to charge across the area and try to block Cheryshev. What followed was a lovely piece of skill as he dummied to shoot, leaving Hawasi and Burayk on their backsides before thumping a rising left-foot shot inside the near post.
By the time the unmarked Dzyuba headed back across goal for Russia’s third, the game had turned into an exercise in damage limitation for Saudi Arabia, who failed to register a single shot on target. Russia, however, were not finished and added two more goals in injury-time.
Cheryshev, running into the area and expertly flicking the ball over the head of Abdullah al-Mayouf, got the fourth and Golovin, with a curling free-kick that beat the goalkeeper at his near post, completed the scoring.
Russia now move on to St Petersburg to face Egypt next Tuesday with a spring in their step. Saudi Arabia, in contrast, have some soul-searching to do before facing Uruguay in Rostov later the same day. “They have won by a landslide – but not by doing much,” Pizzi added. “It’s our poor performance that explains the result.”