Russia began the 2018 World Cup on home soil with a comprehensive victory over Saudi Arabia in Moscow.
Once the uncomfortable sight of the Robbie Williams concert had passed, it was time to get on with the actual tournament opener – and Russia went some way towards lifting some of the pessimism around the team with a stunning 5-0 win, courtesy of goals from Yuri Gazinsky, Aleksandr Golovin and substitutes Denys Cheryshev (x2) and Artem Dzyuba.
With the hosts now three points better off, and Saudi Arabia facing a daunting task in the group, what are the burning questions from the World Cup opener?
Which players stood out?
Aleksandr Golovin immediately stood out as one of the best performers on the pitch. The 22-year-0ld has been on the radar of some of Europe’s biggest clubs in recent months and it’s easy to see why with a confident, assured performance. Played two pinpoint crosses for the first and third goals, and has enhanced his reputation greatly over the course of this 90 minutes. To supply the coup de grace, the playmaker then scored the fifth goal with a tremendous free kick in injury time.
Elsewhere, Russia full-backs Mario Fernandes and Yuri Zhirkov looked a constant threat down the flanks, and the midfield pairing of Gazinsky and Roman Zobnin were a strong, effective force in the centre. Substitute Denys Cheryshev, of course, deserves a mention for two brilliant goals.
Can Russia kick on from here?
Pessimism can be a crippling force, and that certainly seemed to be the case with some of the fans’ assessments of this Russian side. The hosts were lucky that they were drawn to face Saudi Arabia first, and not Egypt or Uruguay, because this is the kind of emphatic win that can boost morale and confidence in the side for the rest of the campaign. If this doens’t begin to rouse the doubting Russian fan base and force them to get behind the team, then nothing will.
That being said, Russia will have much greater tests than this with the other two opponents. Egypt and Uruguay are a lot more organised than Saudi Arabia are, and their respective attacks will carry much more of a threat to what is an old Russian backline.
The 3-0 win will give Russia a psychological boost for the last two matches, but it will also do little to prepare them for the next two matches from a footballing perspective.
How much of a loss will Alan Dzagoev be to Russia?
A big one. Dzagoev might not be the force that he threatened to become at one point, but in a team that is relatively short in creativity, the CSKA Moscow midfielder provides that in spades. Cheryshev proved an able replacement, especially with two well-taken finishes (his second, in particular, was an absolute beauty), but the Villarreal man is not of the same standard and this will show in the remaining two group games (assuming Dzagoev’s injury keeps him out of contention).
It also means that even more of the creative pressure will fall on to the young shoulders of Golovin to try and carry the side into the last 16 – though on today’s evidence, it’s a challenge that he will be ready for.
Can Saudi Arabia recover from this defeat?
God, no. It’ll be extremely tough for them from this point forward. A hitherto disjointed and demoralised Russia side was seen as their best hope of picking up points in this group, and yet they were trounced. Some neat footwork and nice short passing was about the sum of their efforts in Moscow, and the decision to leave Fahad Al-Muwallad on the bench looks, in hindsight, to have been a poor one from manager Juan Antonio Pizzi given the lack of penetration in the attack.
As for the defence, the likes of Mo Salah, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani will have been encouraged by the amount of room that the Saudi backline gifted the Russian forwards.
Do Uruguay and Egypt have much to worry about from these sides?
Not particularly. As well as both teams played, it’s important to remember that it was against each other. Egypt and Uruguay will likely give both much bigger challenges and, on this showing, should both have enough about them to suggest that the two group favourites will be the ones battling it out to decide who goes through on top of the group.
They will both, however, have to keep eyes on the dangerous Golovin at all times, as his crossing ability is lethal. Dealing with the Russian physicality could also be an issue, particularly with the two central midfielders’ ability to shield the defence. That said, they will both still fancy their chances of getting six points from six against Russia and Saudi Arabia.