Russia maul Saudi 5-0 in World Cup opener

Russia maul Saudi 5-0 in World Cup opener
June 14 20:41 2018

After all that negative talk in the lead-up, and the inescapable sense of unease that this opening match could turn into a humiliating experience for the host nation it was tempting to wonder what all the fuss was about after Russia got the World Cup finals up and running with an emphatic victory that was every bit as comfortable as the scoreline suggests.

The lowest-ranked team in the tournament – Saudi Arabia will surely assume that title by the time these finals are over – registered their first win in eight matches to put a smile on the face of Vladimir Putin, the Russia president, and allay fears that the tournament would be some sort of ordeal for Stanislav Cherchesov and his players.

The fact that they were playing Saudi Arabia clearly helped. Juan Antonio Pizzi’s team looked hopelessly out of their depth and it is hard to do justice to how poorly they defended, leaving so much space for Russia, whose first tournament win since 2012 never looked in doubt from the moment Yuri Gazinskiy opened the scoring after 12 minutes.

Aleksandr Golovin created that goal, set up the third for Artem Dzyuba, who had only just come off the bench, and scored a superb, Abdullah al-Mayouf free-kick with the last kick of a game that could not end quickly enough for Saudi Arabia. The other standout performer for Russia was Denis Cheryshev, who scored twice, with the second a wonderful shot with the outside of his left boot that arced over the head of the Saudi Arabia goalkeeper, Abdullah al-Mayouf, and into the top corner.

Saudi Arabia were a danger to themselves and it quickly became clear that the invitation was there for Russia to punish opponents who dominated possession at times but were wide open whenever they lost the ball. The counter-attack was on again and again for Russia, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia were operating with a five-man midfield, and it was no real surprise when the hosts doubled their lead two minutes before the interval.

Saudi Arabia’s defending was awful, although there was still much to admire about the way Cheryshev scored after Roman Zobnin, teed up by Golovin, had sold the Villarreal winger a little short with a square pass. Cheryshev threatened to shoot first time but checked back inside, dumping two Saudi defenders, Osama Hawsawi and Mohammed al-Breik, on their backsides before thumping a rising left-footed shot from about seven yards high inside the near post.

Cheryshev had started on the bench but was introduced after 24 minutes when Alan Dzagoev pulled up abruptly with a hamstring injury during yet another Russian breakaway. Dzagoev was in agony and it is difficult to imagine the CSKA Moscow player, who is one of the few mandatory picks in this Russian side, featuring again in the group stage.

Russia were already a goal in front by that point in the game and it was a sign of things to come in terms of how easily Saudi Arabia were exposed. Golovin, who started wide on the left but moved into a more advanced role behind Fedor Smolov following Dzagoev’s injury, delivered an inswinging cross from the left that Gazinskiy headed home at the far post after Taisir al-Jassim lost his footing at the crucial moment.

Saudi Arabia continued to pass the ball around – they had enjoyed 61% of possession up to half-time – but without any real purpose or conviction. They failed to register a shot on target in the first half and it was alarming just how easily Russia were able to attack through the centre of the pitch, running at the heart of the Saudi Arabia defence, when they gained possession. Golovin found himself in that situation shortly before Russia’s second goal but he never quite had the pace to get beyond Osama Hawsawi, who made a perfectly timed challenge inside the area.

With Russia coasting, the game started to drift early in the second half. Mohammad al-Sahlawi, who has not scored for his country in 12 months, could and possibly should have got a touch to Jassam’s inviting cross from the right but the ball flashed past his outstretched boot. Russia, however, were in total control and added a third when Dyzuba, totally unmarked, headed in Golovin’s cross. Cheryshev’s glorious strike from just inside the area made it 4-0 before Golovin completed the rout.