It was one man against an empire, and in the end it was no contest. Six days into the World Cup, and Russia are through to the next round of their own tournament - not mathematically, but near enough - after an irresistible second-half romp that announced the unfancied hosts as a genuine threat. By the same token, Hector Cuper’s flawed and mercurial Egypt are all but out, taking the hopes and affections of millions with them.
For the brilliant Mohamed Salah, the crushing disappointment of fighting his way back to full fitness from a shoulder injury, only for his first World Cup to amount essentially to 90 competitive minutes. It wasn’t his best night, in truth: a little rusty, starved of possession and ultimately let down by the farcical shenanigans his team-mates were overseeing at the other end of the pitch. The consolation penalty he scored 20 minutes from time will be one of his few pleasant memories of what has been a turbulent and traumatic last few weeks.
It was hard not to feel for Salah, but hard too not to be moved by Russia’s verve and spirit, the way their lightning transitions and lusty tackles brought a capacity St Petersburg crowd - and very probably an entire nation - to a cacophonous crescendo. Six points and eight goals is a start they could scarcely have dreamed of, and though tougher games lie ahead, they will fear no-one now. The final whistle was greeted with an unfettered shriek of triumph, as Russia’s victorious players saluted a public that has so often been wryly sceptical of them. Egypt’s anguish, meanwhile, was silent.
They had moved mountains to get here, but when it mattered they was not quite enough there: the defence too porous, their spells of possession too sketchy, their emotional pitch - in what was their first World Cup in almost three decades - just a little too fraught. It was a game that might have suited them: a breath-sapping, full-throttle head rush of a contest, full of nervy ricochets, barrelling dribbles, borderline challenges and those thrilling, pregnant seconds when the ball looped in the air towards Salah, and a stadium held its breath, and the sunlit June night shimmered with possibility.
But that, in a way, was part of the problem. Knocking long balls up to your 5ft 9in wing magician is not exactly the smartest of strategies, and Salah ended the game with the fewest touches of any outfield player on the pitch who had played all 90 minutes. At least he got his goal in the end, but for most of the night the game felt like an imbalance between Egypt’s one-pronged threat and Russia’s pace on the break and greater variety of attacking options.
They might even have wrapped the game up in the first 15 or 20 minutes, as an exceptionally nervy Egypt struggled to keep the ball, even in their own half. Sergei Ignashevich, Aleksandr Golovin and Denis Cheryshev all had good chances in that period, and in fact Russia were getting a good deal of joy down their left, Egypt’s right, in the spaces behind Salah, where Mohamed Elneny and Ahmed Fathi were frequently outnumbered.
But Egypt weathered that assault, made it to the break on level terms, and so it was all the more galling that within two minutes of the restart, they had conceded a freakish and yet largely avoidable goal. Golovin’s cross was punched away by Mohamed El-Shenawy; Roman Zobnin followed it in with a bobbling shot from distance, and as Fathi tried to scrape it away, he sliced the ball past the goalkeeper and into his own net. Sixty yards away, a sighing Salah ran his fingers through his hair. He knew, as everyone did, that it was a long and lonely road back.
A draw was of little use to Egypt, unless Saudi Arabia could do them a favour by beating Uruguay. And so there was a certain abandon to the way they approached the rest of the game, hoisting the ball forward only for Russia to return it with interest. Cheryshev notched his third goal of the tournament after a superb spin and cut-back from Alexander Samedov; two minutes later, Ahmed Hegazi and Ali Gabr both went for an elementary route-one long ball, both found fresh air, and striker Artem Dzyuba smashed the loose ball in from six yards.
With 20 minutes to go, Salah was dragged down on the edge of the area, a free-kick upgraded to a penalty by the video referees in their strange windowless room. Salah shoved the penalty high into the net, the first goal Russia had conceded all tournament, but it was a bagatelle, a frippery, a single graffito on the wall of the Hermitage. The night was Russia’s. The group is Russia’s for the taking. What else might they accomplish within the next few weeks? Tantalisingly, nobody quite knows.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies