Yuri Gazinskiy will be remembered as the man who scored the first goal of World Cup 2018, but a Russia team regarded by many as the worst in the country’s history has Aleksandr Golovin to thank for ensuring a dream start against Saudi Arabia.
Golovin, the 22-year-old playmaker from CSKA Moscow, started the Russian party in the 12th minute when he picked out the head of Gazinskiy with a pinpoint cross from the left wing and provided the final flourish when he curled a superb free-kick beyond Abdullah Al-Mayoof with the final act of the game. By then he had also supplied substitute Artem Dzyuba with an equally inviting delivery from the right flank with 19 minutes remaining.
In addition to his goal and two assists, he also played a key role in substitute Denis Cheryshev doubling Russia’s lead, racing forward into the space vacated by Omar Hawsawi and sending the Saudi defence into scramble mode by checking back and picking out Fedor Smolov, who just about managed to shift the ball on to the Villarreal winger to score.
Operating in the No10 position behind the bustling Smolov, Golovin consistently drifted into pockets of space, setting the tempo and direction of Russia’s forward passing from deep as well as panicking Saudi defenders whenever he darted into the final third.
He might even have had a penalty when he bamboozled Osama Hawsawi with a slick pair of stepovers and went to ground in the box under the defender’s last-ditch tackle, but Argentine referee Nestor Pitana judged the incident neither a foul nor a dive.
As the first half wore on and the gaps in the Saudi back line widened, his influence grew. In the second, his intelligence in possession and willingness to work selflessly without the ball helped Russia protect their advantage without too many anxious moments before he powered a late flurry that added a further layer of gloss to proceedings.
Russia’s hopes of exceeding low expectations for the tournament were always expected to rest on Golovin, who introduced himself to a wider audience in April when he curled a brilliant free-kick beyond Petr Cech - eerily similar to his World Cup strike - in the first leg of CSKA’s Europa League quarter-final against Arsenal.
CSKA lost 4-1 at the Emirates Stadium in spite of their midfielder’s moment of magic, but Golovin gave the Gunners another almighty scare in the return leg by inspiring his team to a 2-0 lead before late strikes from Danny Welbeck and Aaron Ramsey restored order.
Arsene Wenger spoke admiringly of Golovin’s talent when the tie was over, fuelling speculation that Arsenal might be preparing to bid for him this summer. Circumstances at the Emirates Stadium have clearly changed with the Frenchman’s departure and Unai Emery’s arrival, and the Gunners’ pursuit of Lucas Torreira suggests they are prioritising more defensive-minded midfield reinforcements.
But on the strength of his progress at CSKA and a virtuoso World Cup debut, Golovin is clearly ready to shine on a grander stage at club level. The close control, vision and passing he first honed playing futsal in the Siberian town of Kaltan as a boy would benefit not just Arsenal, but any Premier League club with serious designs on challenging Manchester City next season.
Juventus are also reported to be serious suitors for Golovin this summer, only reinforcing the notion that the Premier League would be lucky to have him. If he continues to make Russia’s dreams a reality at this World Cup, CSKA will be able to name their price.
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