Russia would probably not have been competing at the 2018 World Cup were they not its hosts. Their World Cup record since 1990 is wretched, two group stage victories and three failed qualification campaigns. In 2014’s edition, they drew with South Korea and Algeria and lost to Belgium. By 2015, head coach Fabio Capello had been sacked at a reported cost of $35m.
THE party got off with a swing at Russia’s World Cup – as Saudi Arabia proved to be the most courteous guests imaginable soaking in 5 goals to nothing .No tournament has ever benefited from the exit of a host nation and thanks to a shockingly poor display from the Saudis, an historically-poor Russia have given themselves a decent chance of qualifying from Group A.
Goals from Iury Gazinsky, Denis Cheryshev (two), Artem Dzyuba and Aleksandr Golovin earned the Russians a thumping victory – their first win in eight matches – in front of 78,000 at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.
This was never likely to be a classic opener between teams ranked 67th and 70th in the FIFA rankings – with Russia somehow beneath the visitors – and thanks to some non-league defending from the Saudis, it bordered on farce at times.
After a weirdly low-key opening ceremony – basically just a mini Robbie Williams gig with some dancers doing keepy-up – we were treated to some lovey-dovey words from international man of peace Vladimir Putin.
Then it was down to what were officially the two worst teams in the tournament to kick us off – and, by thunder, Saudi Arabia were bad.
Saudi Arabia suffered from some suspect defending throughout the game
They gave the ball away with a regularity which suggested acute colour-blindness and defended with amateur-hour haplessness.
It took just 13 minutes for the Russians to strike – Aleksandr Golovin crossing to the back post, where Gazinsky headed back across goal to open the scoring.
Heading to the stadium, it felt as if the majority of the crowd would be South Americans – the Peruvians, in particularly, were hear in their thousands.
But when Gazinsky scored, the Russians made their presence felt by making one hell of a racket.
Saudi keeper Al Muaiouf came to the rescue of his clownish defenders when he clawed a
For all their tidy passing in attacking midfield, Saudi Arabia were far worse than anyone expected. They were guilty of over-adventure in the first half, picked off on the counter attack, and then failed to mount an attacking assault after the break when the situation demanded it. They were physically overpowered throughout.
That makes it difficult to judge Russia, but there were sure signs of sunshine and blue sky. Alan Dzagoev’s injury could well rule him out of the rest of the tournament, but his replacement Denis Cheryshev took the second and fourth goals beautifully. If Fyodor Smolov left us with a tinge of disappointment, Artem Dzyuba took less than a minute to make a case to start their next game.
This Russia team has a star, too. We already knew that Aleksandr Golovin was the great hope of the motherland, but the reported interest from Juventus makes a lot more sense after Thursday. Golovin stays between the lines, picking pockets of space and dribbling forward when he finds them. Thoughts immediately turn to Andrey Arshavin’s displays at Euro 2008.
Russia will have to be far better against Egypt and Uruguay, particularly if Mohamed Salah is fully fit. In 2014, Italy and Ivory Coast both won their first group games and were still eliminated in the group stages. Neither of their forthcoming opponents will afford them the same luxuries as Pizzi’s side did.
For now though, positivity should reign, both for the hosts and this tournament. Russia vs Saudi Arabia was treated with widespread derision in the build-up, the plain brown bread roll before something that you actually ordered arrives to the table. It is indeed slightly unfortunate for the organisers that the inaugural game of such a showpiece tournament was between the two lowest-ranked teams.
But sod all that, because the World Cup has begun. When we have waited four years, who cares about the two teams? Their identity is a mere irrelevance. This is about sights, sounds and tingles, the first of 64 matches in 31 days. If you can’t absorb the World Cup at its Russia vs Saudi Arabia, you don’t deserve it at its Portugal vs Spain. And you’re only allowed to watch the final if you sat through Robbie Williams in the opening ceremony.