“Russia is an open, hospitable and friendly country” states Vladimir Putin during the opening ceremony of the 2018 World Cup. Believe of that what you will, but you could have certainly used those words to describe the Saudi defence in the opening half of the tournament. After failing to clear an early Russian corner, the dangerous Aleksandr Golovin was allowed too much space to put in an in-swinging cross from the left hand side. A couple of Russian players were free from a marker at the back post but it was unheralded FC Krasnodar defensive midfielder Yury Gazinsky who rose to nod the ball past helpless Saudi goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf. It wasn’t the perfect script for the Russians, however, as iconic playmaker Alan Dzagoev limped off injured after pulling up with a hamstring shortly after Gazinsky’s opener. Ex-Real Madrid winger Denis Cheryshev replaced him and gave the expectant Russian fans more to shout about just before half time. Golovin again providing the outlet for the Russians on the break and after some good work from exciting young Spartak Moscow midfielder Roman Zobnin, Cheryshev beat his man in the penalty area and fired high into the Saudi net.
After failing to register a shot on target in the first half, the Saudis came out with more enterprise after the break. Al-Hilal’s Salman Al Faraj whipped in a telling cross from the right that was only inches away from both Mohammed Al Sahlawi and Taiseer Al Jassam. Any hopes of a turnaround were soon dashed when the excellent Golovin’s pin-point cross was headed in by giant 6ft 5in striker Artem Dzyuba, who had only been on the field for 89 seconds after replacing the busy Samedov. A memorable afternoon for coach Stanislav Cherchesov was topped off by Cheryshev’s exquisite outside-of-the-foot volley into the top corner minutes into added on time at the end of the game in Moscow. It was a stunning strike worthy of the highest stage. The Russians were not done, however, as Golovin’s curling free kick moments later completed the rout. What a start to the tournament.
A stroll in the park for the Russians, who will look to seal a place in the knockout stages when they face Egypt next in Saint Petersburg. While it is hard to gauge just how effective they might be in the tournament due to how woeful the Saudis were, you can only beat what is in front of you. In Golovin they have a future star in the making, watching him develop alone makes Russia worth the watch. 63 games to go, don’t you just love it!
Man of the Match: Aleksandr Golovin (Russia)
Best: Denis Cheryshev, Aleksandr Golovin, Aleksandr Samedov, Roman Zobnin (all Russia)