Eight years of the most meticulous, uncompromising Russian preparation saw FIFA’s latest edition of ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ begin on Thursday.
While the launch may have been conducted with typically underwhelming pomp – more Danny Dyer than Danny Boyle – it did little to diminish the build-up of four years of rampant expectation, which came to a euphoric head at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
Russia’s preparation could not have been much worse. After a disastrous Euro 2016, manager Stanislav Cherchesov’s attempts to rejuvenate the squad have been hampered by injuries and fallouts between the coach and key players. Most notably, standout defensive midfielder, Igor Denisov, hasn’t been picked since Cherchesov’s arrival following a falling out between pair during their shared time at Dynamo Moscow in 2015.
Cherchesov’s prolonged experimentation with defenders, flirting with both 3 and 4-back systems, has seen him use 10 centre-backs over the past two years. Injuries forced 38 year-old veteran Sergey Ignashevich to reluctantly end his international retirement. Coupled with star forward Aleksandr Kokorin’s cruciate ligament surgery earlier this year, such off-field problems became visible on the pitch, with Russia’s last victory in October against South Korea.
Headlines such as Moscow Times’ ‘We Are Doomed to Fail’ came therefore, as Russia began the competition as the lowest-ranked side.
Doubts over the team’s ability to not become the first hosts during any World Cup to lose the opening game may only have increased as their opponents started brightly, moving the ball with the precision and guile former Spanish international Juan Antonio Pizzi has looked to instil in them since taking over last November.
Yet not even the most potent of adrenaline rushes could continue to mask the elephant on the pitch: even ‘the worst Russia team ever’, as one local pundit described it, could outplay the Saudis.
A Russian corner, just 12 minutes in, pushed away but not cleared, saw 22 year-old Aleksandr Golovin (pictured above), previously linked with Manchester United and Arsenal, curl in a cross towards Krasnodar’s Yury Gazinskiy. An unfortunate slip from Yasser al-Shahrani left the defensive midfielder unmarked, and able to steer his header beyond Saudi goalkeeper Abdullah al-Maiouf’s flailing dive. Gazinskiy’s celebrations, and those of his Russian team mates, were perhaps more relief than anything else.
From then, the wheels of Saudi capitulation were set in motion. Their game plan, defending resolutely with the compact 4-2-3-1 they had used with varying success previously, and getting their ball to their creative midfielders, was perhaps undermined when Pizzi chose to omit the talented Fayed al-Muwallad. His inclusion may not even have made much difference, with Russia’s aggressive and unrelenting counter-press proving too much for Saudi Arabia. Gazinskiy and the impressive Roman Zobnin were quick to close out the danger on the rare occasion Saudi Arabia mustered something looking like a break forward, ensuring the Saudi Crown Prince wasn’t forced to keep his promise of a Bentley for each Saudi goalscorer.
Defensively, centre-backs Osama and Omar Hawsawi, related only through their abject inability to contain the consistently excellent Golovin and his band of Russian tormentors, looked as disjointed as the final scoreline might suggest.
The Hawsawis were not aided by Saudi’s defensive midfielder players, Abdullah Otayf and Tasir al-Jassim, stretched in an uncomfortable limbo between providing defensive cover and attempting to transition the ball upfield.
Not even injury to Alan Dzaegov (joint top scorer at Euro 2012) mid-way through the first-half, could thwart Russia. In fact, it was Dzaegov’s replacement, the industrious Denis Cheryshev, who, twisting neatly away from a number of limp Saudi attempts to win the ball, smashed in Russia’s second goal (pictured below), two minutes before half-time.
After half time, once again Golovin sent managers across Europe scrambling for their phonebooks, floating in a wonderfully weighted ball for substitute Artem Dzyuba to head home with his opening touch of the game, becoming the first player to score a goal in his home city at a World Cup since 2006.
All that remained was for Russia to salt the wounds the Saudis found themselves licking come stoppage time. First Cheryshev, with an attempt to become the host nation’s own Roberto Carlos, left al-Maiouf no chance with a thunderous strike with the outside of his left foot. Golovin concluded his masterful performance with a dipping free-kick, which had the goalkeeper sprinting helplessly across his line.
Worryingly for Saudi Arabia, the scoreline may have flattered them. Fyodor Smolov could have had more than one goal had he finished like he has done during his past three seasons at Krasnodar, while one winces at the thought of what may have been had Dzaegov been able to play a full 90 minutes.
This was not a champions’ performance from Russia, but an efficiently ruthless hounding of diabolical opposition. They will surely need to find some result against either Uruguay or Egypt, both far stronger than Saudi Arabia, to qualify for the knock-out stages. Yet, as Putin’s post-match congratulatory phone call to manager Cherchesov demonstrates, the performance provides plenty of optimism.
Pizzi’s ‘feeling of shame’ after the match may only be fixed with improved performances in the remaining group games. Saudi’s route into the competition’s Last 16 may be over before it has begun, the bookmakers slashing odds on Pizzi’s dismissal before they meet Egypt in Volgograd on June 25th. Before that, they must face Uruguay, spearheaded by Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani. Humiliation is not an option.