Belfast Telegraph

Russia is starting to fall in love with their 'no-hopers'

By Adrian Rutherford

The plane was approaching Moscow on Tuesday night when the captain made an unexpected announcement over the intercom.

He spoke in Russian but the sudden outbreak of cheers from passengers told everything. A moment or two later, for the benefit of a few dozen England fans also on the flight from Volgograd, he returned with a translation.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the match is over and it has finished in a 3-1 win for Russia," he said.

Six days into the World Cup and the host nation were all but assured of progression to the last 16. It has been quite the turnaround for a team written off before a ball was kicked.

On June 13, the Moscow Times had declared: "Ageing and inexperienced: Why Russia is doomed to fail." As eve-of-tournament battlecries go, it was hardly tub-thumping stuff.

Yet here they sit with six points from two games, eight goals scored and, in Denis Cheryshev and Aleksandr Golovin, two of the World Cup's early stars.

After all the pessimism, the home fans have piled in behind their new heroes. Heading away from the airport, Moscow's streets were awash with national pride with people singing and flags waving.

The pre-tournament negativity was understandable.

Russia sat 70th in the Fifa rankings issued on June 7 - the lowest of all 32 teams at the World Cup, and its worst ever placing. They didn't make it out of their group four years ago in Brazil, or at the Euros in France in 2016, and similar was expected here.

So what has changed so suddenly?

Well, Group A was hardly the group of death. Russia's opening opponents Saudi Arabia - the lowest ranked of the 31 other teams - could have been hand-picked.

Next up was Egypt, who had never won a World Cup match and seemed too reliant on Mohamed Salah, rushed back from his Champions League final injury.

Both games offered the chance to bag early points.

Yet it would be unfair - and inaccurate - to dismiss 5-0 and 3-1 wins as mere good fortune. The team has balance and tempo, with Cheryshev forming a fine understanding with Golovin.

Cheryshev replaced the injured Alan Dzagoev in the opening match and already has three goals, having scored just two in La Liga in the previous two seasons with Villarreal.

Artem Dzyuba, who was frozen out at Zenit St Petersburg, sent on loan and barely scraped into the squad, has seized his chance.

He scored with a header minutes after coming on against the Saudis and, handed a start against Egypt on Tuesday night, he scored Russia's third goal, powerfully winning the ball before firing home.

That result sparked celebrations and allowed everyone to dream of what could yet come.

Bigger tests await, though, starting with Uruguay in the final group game in Samara on Monday night, and a last-16 clash against either Spain or Portugal may well end the adventure.

Yet previous tournaments have shown just what can happen when a host nation harnesses some momentum - remember South Korea's remarkable run to the semi-finals in 2002.

Asked on Tuesday night whether the win over Egypt had been the happiest day of his life, coach Stanislav Cherchesov, replied: "I hope there are many more to come."

He might just get his wish.

Belfast Telegraph

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