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World Cup 2018: Denis Cheryshev dazzles as Russia start the party in style against Saudi Arabia

Russia 5-0 Saudi Arabia: Gazinskiy, Cheryshev (2), Dzyuba and Golovin all scored for the hosts

Mark Critchley
Luzhniki Stadium
Thursday 14 June 2018 17:34 BST
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World Cup Opening Ceremony

Russia was once famously described as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” and this 5-0 victory - emphatic though it was - offered few answers to the many questions that surround the quality of the World Cup hosts. In Saudi Arabia’s case however, there should be no such doubts. Based on their showing here, Juan Antonio Pizzi's side will be the worst team at this World Cup by a comfortable margin - a mess, wrapped in a muddle, inside an outright shambles.

According to Fifa’s much-maligned rankings system, this opening game was destined to be the lowest-quality match at the tournament. Even after such a dominant win for Russia, with two goals for Denis Cheryshev and one for the excellent Aleksandr Golovin, it will be not far off that title once all is said and done.

Yet on this evidence, the 70th-placed hosts - an uninspiring but organised outfit that can be effective when playing direct - deserve to sit higher in those rankings than the Saudis - apparently the world’s 67th-best international side, but seemingly incapable of setting up a defence.

Whether it was Taiseer Aljassam tripping over his own two feet to allow Yury Gazinsky to open the scoring, or the collective defensive failure that permitted Denis Cheryshev to add an easy second, or the misplaced belief in their ability to play out from back throughout, this was an inept Saudi performance unsuited to the grand stage and deserving of the five-goal defeat.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian premier, spoke of his country as “open, hospitable and friendly” during the pre-match ceremony to some audible scoffs in the press box, but this theory never had to be tested. So poor and compliant were the Saudis, they played the part of perfect party guests.

Russia will hope this is a sign of things to come through this tournament, but neutral observers may be worried that this type of result will be all too common in World Cups to come. This is Saudi Arabia’s fifth finals appearance, having qualified for all but two tournaments since 1994. In their last 11 matches, they have been outscored 34-5, suffering nine defeats and drawing twice.

(Getty)

The old cliché that there are no straight-foward games in international football was formed during the days of compact World Cups which were steeped in quality. With each passing edition of this more inclusive yet increasingly bloated tournament, that idea becomes yet more inaccurate.

In the very early exchanges, Saudi’s attempts to employ a slick, counter-attacking approach were promising and suggested this would be an open contest. Yet that style ultimately proved beyond them and Russia, drilled by their disciplinarian head coach Stanislav Cherchesov, soon learned how to withstand the small threat their opponents posed.

Russia took only 12 minutes to take the lead. Following the breakdown of a corner, Russia's brightest spark Aleksandr Golovin whipped a cross to the far post. Aljassam was in place to head clear right up until the moment he he found himself on his rear-end, watching Gazinsky rise and head into the far corner, over the outstretched palm of goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayoof.

Putin was watching on from the executive boxes at this point with Mohammad Bin Salman and, after reaching across Fifa president Gianni Infantino, offered a commiseratory shrug and handshake to the Crown Prince of Saud. He looked confident there would be more handshakes to come.

(Getty Images (Getty Images)

Yet for all Saudi’s sloppiness, for all the ease with which Russia penetrated their defence, the hosts lacked the sufficient quality to create clear chances. A potentially serious injury to Alan Dzagoev, one of the few technically-gifted players that Cherchesov can boast, only hampered them further and as the interval drew closer, it appeared as though Saudi would escape with just a one-goal deficit.

If Russia could not fashion openings of their own, however, Saudi were more than happy to oblige. After catching their guests’ backline stretched, Roman Zobinin squared to Cheryshev, on for Dzagoev, who took both Omar Hawsawi and Mohammed Alburayak out of the game with a single feint and applied a thumping finish.

It said much about the level of quality on both sides that, at the end of the first half, the Luzhniki had seen just two shots on target and yet both had resulted in a goal. Once two-up though, a Russian side that had seemed slightly nervous before kick-off began to find its stride and became fully confident in its superiority.

(Getty Images (Getty Images)

Another substitute, Artem Dzuyba, found the third with his first touch, - a routine header off Golovin’s cross that Osama Hawsawi barely challenged him for. It was this point that Saudi’s heads truly dropped, and the ambition that they had shown in the first half was finally spent.

In the five-minute passage of added-on time, Russia showed no mercy. Cheryshev’s second was a pot-shot from inches inside the area, hit as if to say: ‘Why not?’ Al-Mayoof offered no convincing response in return. The effort rose past him and into the far corner. Golovin, scorer of the fifth, seemed surprised himself with how easily his late free-kick nestled into the net. Is the world’s greatest football tournament usually this easy? Sadly, sometimes it is.

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