Hosts Russia opened their World Cup campaign and with a 5-0 thrashing of a woeful Saudi Arabia, a result that will delight a nation desperate to enjoy their moment on football’s biggest stage.
According to FIFA’s rankings there was little between these teams as they kicked off, which suggested it would be a competitive game.
Sadly, the rankings also suggested it would not be high on quality, as Russia came into the tournament as the lowest-ranked hosts in history, at 70th. The Saudis were a whole three places higher but not for much longer on this evidence.
Russian president Vladimir Putin told us Russians love football during the opening ceremony and there was no denying the passion of the crowd at the Luzhniki Stadium – every time their heroes crossed the halfway line the decibel level rocketed.
Saudi Arabia looked like a team coming off the back of three losses in friendlies and Russia looked like a team delighted to be playing them after their own seven-game winless run.
The opening goal came after just 12 minutes and it told the story of the whole game.
A Russian corner failed to beat the Saudi defender at the near post but was cleared straight back to the corner-taker, former Chelsea player Yury Zhirkov. He passed to Roman Zobnin, who swung in a decent cross from the left only for the Saudis to make it look like a precision dart. Yury Gazinsky was given a free header he accepted it with pleasure.
It was his first goal for Russia and the crowd erupted. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was picked up on camera appealing to FIFA president Gianni Infantino and Putin for a foul. The Russian front man smiled and shook his hand.
The Saudis tried to knock the ball around but the Russians only had to sit back and wait for them to hand it over. Several chances were squandered before the home side made them pay for their generosity. Nothing was seen of the visitors’ apparent danger man Mohammed Al-Sahlawi.
And on 43 minutes the Green Eagles were plucked. Osama Hawsawi failed to deal with a pass aimed in Fedor Smolov’s direction and Aleksandr Golovin beat his man in a race to the loose ball.
The most creative player on the park, Golovin rolled the ball to Zobnin but he dawdled and played a poor pass to Denis Cheryshev, who had been completely free on goal.
Luckily, Cheryshev did his team-mate a favour by lifting the ball over one challenge, stepping inside another and drilling the ball past Abdullah.
The second half took a long time to come to life. The Saudis passed the ball from side to side but never looked like inconveniencing Igor Akinfeev, Russia’s captain between the sticks.
The third goal was another meaty header from a deep cross, this time from the right and this time finished by Artem Dzyuba in the 71st minute. It was his first touch, having come on for the ineffective Smolov a minute before.
And then just as everyone was starting to make plans for the post-match party, Cheryshev popped up with his second moment of class – a beautiful, dipping effort with the outside of his left foot from 20 yards out – and Golovin curled in a free-kick.
Two goals in added time and a grinning Putin shrugged. His day could not have gone better.
Russia play Egypt next Tuesday, while Saudi Arabia must gather themselves for Uruguay on Wednesday.
Those two sides will still fancy their chances of progressing from Group A but the hosts have given themselves a chance of reaching their first World Cup knockout game since the demise of the Soviet Union.
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