Belfast Telegraph

Dream start for Russians

Russia 5 Saudi Arabia 0

By Matt Slater

Hosts Russia opened their World Cup campaign with a 5-0 thrashing of a woeful Saudi Arabia, a result that will delight a nation desperate to enjoy their moment on football's biggest stage.

According to Fifa's rankings there was little between these teams as they kicked off, which suggested it would be a competitive game.

Sadly, the rankings also suggested it would not be high on quality, as Russia came into the tournament as the lowest-ranked hosts in history, at 70th.

The Saudis were a whole three places higher, but not for much longer on this evidence.

Russian president Vladimir Putin told us during the opening ceremony that Russians love football, and there was no denying the passion of the crowd at the Luzhniki Stadium.

The opening goal came after just 12 minutes and it told the story of the whole game.

A Russian corner failed to beat the Saudi defender at the near post but was cleared straight back to the corner-taker, former Chelsea player Yury Zhirkov. He passed to Roman Zobnin, who swung in a decent cross from the left only for the Saudis to make it look like a precision dart. Yury Gazinsky was given a free header - he accepted it with pleasure.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was picked up on camera appealing to Fifa president Gianni Infantino and Putin for a foul. The Russian chief smiled and shook his hand.

On 43 minutes the Green Eagles were plucked. Osama Hawsawi failed to deal with a pass aimed in Fedor Smolov's direction and Aleksandr Golovin beat his man in a race to the loose ball.

The most creative player on the park, Golovin rolled the ball to Zobnin, but he dawdled and played a poor pass to Denis Cheryshev, who had been completely free on goal.

Luckily, Cheryshev did his team-mate a favour by lifting the ball over one challenge, stepping inside another and drilling the ball past Abdullah.

The second half took a long time to come to life.

The third goal was another meaty header from a deep cross, this time from the right and this time finished by Artem Dzyuba in the 71st minute. It was his first touch, having come on for Smolov a minute before.

And then just as everyone was starting to make plans for the post-match party, Cheryshev popped up with his second moment of class - a beautiful, dipping effort with the outside of his left foot from 20 yards out - and Golovin curled in a free-kick.

Two goals in added time and a grinning Putin shrugged. His day could not have gone better.

Russia play Egypt on Tuesday, while Saudi Arabia must gather themselves for Uruguay on Wednesday.

Those two sides will still fancy their chances of progressing from Group A, but the hosts have given themselves a chance of reaching their first World Cup knockout game since the demise of the Soviet Union.

Boss Stanislav Cherchesov said: "We won 5-0 and we got three points but it could have been a draw and only a point - we would still have to get out of the group. We won our first game at (last summer's) Confederations Cup and it didn't take us too far. So we're on the right track but we should turn the page and forget this game."

Meanwhile, double scorer Cheryshev had trouble summing up his emotions.

"There are no words to describe how I'm feeling," said Cheryshev, before settling on "happy".

"I'm happy for me and I'm happy for helping the team and I'm happy for my family, who have suffered so much with my injuries. So I'm extremely happy but we shouldn't stop here: if you relax, you are out."

As for the Saudi camp, there was no trying to sugarcoat the result.

Boss Juan Antonio Pizzi said: "Results like this don't happen very often in World Cups and we need to recover from this shameful situation.

"I trust my efforts, I trust my players and I fully trust that we'll have a better performance in the next game," added the Saudi Arabia manager.

And he had a message for Russia's fans.

"I don't think they did anything to surprise us," Pizzi said.

"They won without doing much - a poor performance explains this result."

RUSSIA: Akinfeev, Fernandes, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Zhirkov, Zobnin, Gazinsky, Golovin, Samedov (Kuzyaev 64), Smolov (Dzyuba 70), Dzagoev (Cheryshev 24).

Subs not used: Lunev, Semenov, Kudryashov, Granat, Aleksey Miranchuk, Anton Miranchuk, Erokhin, Smolnikov, Gabulov.

SAUDI ARABIA: Al-Muaiouf, Al-Breik, Osama Hawsawi, Omar Hawsawi, Al-Shahrani, Al-Jassam, Otayf (Al-Muwallad 64), Al-Dawsari, Al-Shehri (Bahbir 74), Al-Faraj, Al-Sahlawi (Asiri 84).

Subs not used: Al-Mosailem, Al-Harbi, Al Bulaihi, Al-Khaibri, Kanno, Al-Khaibari, Al-Moqahwi, Motaz Hawsawi, Al-Owais.

Man of the Match: Aleksandr Golovin (Russia)

Match Rating: 7/10

Referee: Pitana Nestor (Argentina)

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