Rampant Russians hit five in one-sided farce
Dreadful Saudis forget to turn up on opening night
|(Yuri Gazinsky 12, Denis Cheryshev 43, 90+1, Artem Dzyuba 71, Aleksandr Golovin 90+5)|
The World Cup kicked off this morning, but someone forgot to tell Saudi Arabia.
Russia’s scandalously easy stroll past their abject opponents was a desperately one-sided affair, leaving us with only one straw to clutch.
The World Cup can only be more competitive from here.
The curtain raiser had the whiff of an off-colour joke at a family gathering. We just had to smile politely, wait for it to pass and then pretend it never happened.
Russia’s 5-0 victory said so much more about their dreadful opposition.
The hosts and Saudi Arabia are the lowest-ranked teams in this World Cup, a point underlined from first minute to last. Even the most eternal of optimists never expected an aesthetic treat to rival previous tournament classics, but they might have anticipated an encounter with fewer mistakes and better defending.
Russia gave the crowd what they wanted as early as the 12th minute, going ahead with a goal that suggested Saudi Arabia’s back four had met just before kick-off on Tinder.
In the match build-up, there was a concern that the hosts might struggle with defenders of pensionable age. On Russia’s left side of defence, Sergei Ignashevich and Yuri Zhirkov had 72 years between them.
They looked their age. But the Saudis looked like they were still coming to grips with the finer points of co-ordinated body movements.
When Yuri Gazinsky dashed towards Aleksandr Golovin’s floated cross, four green shirts surrounded him.
But the midfielder evaded them all, steering an unmarked header past keeper Abdullah Al-Maiouf, who flapped and flailed like a goldfish in a drying puddle.
The early goal was most welcome inside Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium for the usual, and distinctly unusual, reasons.
A strange opening ceremony somehow morphed into a Robbie Williams gig, with the British singer delivering snippets of hit songs like a disjointed SuperBowl performance, before offering the middle finger straight to the camera.
It was a classy start to the world’s biggest family-friendly event.
A sluggish contest was probably expected, considering the hosts and Saudi Arabia are so poorly ranked and hadn’t registered a win between them in their past 10 matches.
Even then, the first, jaunty Mexican Wave snaked its way around the stadium in less than five minutes. The football fare wasn’t overly appealing. The Saudis offered nothing in attack and only slapstick comedy in defence.
The Russians initially appeared jittery on home soil, playing beneath the watchful gaze of President Vladimir Putin.
The goal liberated the hosts, but just over 10 minutes later, popular playmaker Alan Dzagoev pulled up short. He grabbed his left hamstring and went off.
The World Cup might already be over for the unfortunate Dzagoev, who also missed Euro 2016 through injury.
On the plus side, his replacement doubled Russia’s advantage just before half-time.
The lively Golovin, who may quietly evolve into a prominent participant as the World Cup progresses, broke free in midfield and fed Fedor Smolov.
The striker’s slipped pass across the box was too short for substitute Denis Cheryshev. But an intelligent feint sent defenders Mohammed Al-Breik and Omar Hawsawi sliding towards each other with the symmetrical grace of synchronised swimmers.
Cheryshev, the coolest man in Moscow, smashed his strike high into the net.
The first half witnessed only two shots on target. Russia converted them both. Saudi Arabia’s haphazard defending suggests their World Cup stay will be a short one.
A second substitute, Artem Dzyuba, wrapped up the three points in the 71st minute, scoring with his first touch – an outstanding header into the bottom corner.
And then, the game moved into surreal territory.
First, Cheryshev curled a strike into the top corner with a cheeky swish of his left foot, deep in stoppage time. Seconds later, Golovin topped an excellent individual performance with a superb free-kick. It was practically the last kick of the game.
The hosts top Group A for now, but know they’ll face much tougher opposition in Egypt and Uruguay.
As for the Saudis, their decision to make Juan Antonio Pizzi their third coach in a year has clearly backfired. They lacked discipline, organisation and any semblance of tactical structure in a thoroughly wretched performance.
The Russians might be quietly thinking about the knockout stages. Their opponents should already be thinking about an early flight home.
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