How fitting was it that, before the tournament’s opening game, no one had any hope or optimism for the host nation? Not even their own fans… and rightly so. Despite being the hosts for the 21st edition of the FIFA World Cup, Russia are the lowest ranked team in the tournament. They all lost all of their warm-up games prior to the World Cup, so the lack of excitement for the Sbornaya was well warranted. Every single one of the opening matches from the previous World Cups in the 21st century delivered treats to football fans across the globe: Senegal’s surprise against France in 2002, the goal-fest between Germany and Costa Rica in 2006, Tshabalala’s stunner for South Africa in 2010, and Brazil’s samba performance in 2014. No one envisioned that Russia and Saudi Arabia would produce anything to match those thrillers, or even anything close to entertaining.
On the World Cup’s opening day (June 14th, 2018), Russian fans arrived at the Luzhniki Stadium with very little expectation. Many held on to thoughts of Russia’s last host-tournament, the FIFA Confederations Cup last year, where that campaign was, truthfully, awful. The majority of them were looking forward to the opening ceremony and a performance from Robbie Williams more than a “dead” opening game. Robbie Williams did succeed in wooing the crowd, though, with a mesmerizing performance alongside Russian singer, Aida Garifullina, despite a middle finger gesture (for who knows what) among the excitement. But that was just the start of an amazing night.
At the conclusion of the 10 minute appetizer, it was time for the feature presentation. Russia started the game well, pressing their opponents and limiting their play. Despite being under immense pressure, the Saudis insisted on playing tiki-taka football, which caused them to stifle in the final third. Twelve minutes in, Iury Gazinsky scored the first goal of World Cup 2018 with a firmly-placed header from Alexandr Golovin’s superb cross from the left flank. The crowd loved nothing more. Ecstasy filled the new Luzhniki Stadium. The Russians doubled their lead near the break when Denis Cheryshev, who replaced Alan Dzagoev after he suffered a hamstring injury, cheekily got past two defenders with a dink over his opponents and smashed into the near top corner.
Saudi Arabia continued to struggle after the break. Nicknamed the Neymar of the Gulf, Salem Aldawsari looked promising up top for the Falcons, initiating bursts forward and threatening the Russian defence. But despite dominating possession, Saudi Arabia couldn’t register a shot on target. The Russians looked fairly solid defensively. Their opponents were, most times, relegated to back-passes and sideways passes. The game was Russia’s to lose. Another substitute graced the scoresheet in the 71st minute: Artem Dzyuba connected to Golovin’s inviting cross and buried it with his head. Another cross, another goal, another assist for Alexandr Golovin. 3-0.
Russia were having the perfect opening day, and Cheryshev — well what a substitute he turned out to be. The Villarreal winger doubled his tally in the 91st minute with the goal of the day: an absolute piledriver from the top of the box; similar to Andre Schürrle’s second goal against Brazil in 2014. Break-out star of this World Cup, maybe? After all, no one expected James Rodriguez to shine as he did four years ago. The Russian work of art received its finishing touch after Golovin converted a free-kick from around 20 yards out. A goal and two assists; he was having the perfect day. Conclusively, so was the entirety of Russia. Five goals to savour, and they were five of the very best. The Super Subs remarkably played their part. It will be difficult to surpass this bar that they’ve set for themselves. But, for now, they’ll be quite content on enjoying the partying as it is.
Denis Cheryshev was awarded the Budweiser Man of the Match. But, I’d drift away from the flair that Cheryshev provided and give the MOTM award to Alexandr Golovin, double provider and goal-scorer. He played the game almost to perfection and was instrumental in almost all of Russia’s play going forward, as well as in stabilizing the Saudis in midfield. So it’s only fair to give the CSKA Moscow man the first accolade of World Cup 2018.
Well, from a “nothing game” to a well-rounded thriller. I quite enjoyed it, did you? What will the Russian National team have for us next? Although you’d have to figure that Saudi Arabia was, arguably, their easiest game of the group. They’re surely not going to score five against Uruguay and Egypt. What about the rest of the tournament? Are we going to see more of today’s beauty? Or better? We can’t really question it, to be honest. We can’t even imagine it. We shouldn’t. This is football, and it’s FIFA the World Cup. Anything can happen. Literally, anything.
Image Credit: FIFA™