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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

'It's just the beginning': Hosts Russia off to flying start with victory over Saudi Arabia in World Cup 2018

Manager Cherchesov pleased after Russia avoid ignominy of becoming first host nation to lose football’s great curtain-raiser. They survived Robbie Williams, build-up of pre-tournament pressure and pre-match nerves, writes John McAuley from Moscow

Russia's Artem Dzyuba celebrates with teammates after scoring his team's third goal against Saudi Arabia at Luzhniki Stadium. Kevin C Cox / Getty Images
Russia's Artem Dzyuba celebrates with teammates after scoring his team's third goal against Saudi Arabia at Luzhniki Stadium. Kevin C Cox / Getty Images

It was a first of many.

The first international goal for Yuri Gazinsky, Russia’s defensive midfielder whose place in the squad had come as a surprise to some; the first goal in his side’s clash with Saudi Arabia at a packed and partisan Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow; the first goal of the 2018 World Cup.

Most importantly, it set the hosts on their way to a first victory of this World Cup. A first World Cup on home soil.

Kazinsky scored, first-half substitute Denis Cheryshev added another, then Artem Dzyuba rose from the bench to nab one too. In injury-time, Cheryshev curled in his second. Moments later, Alexsandr Golovin capped a man-of-the-match display with a precision free-kick. Russia had five.

Saudi, slack in possession and ragged without it, had crumbled. They did not have a single shot on target.

Russia did what they simply had to do: they won. The world was watching. Vladimir Putin, sat alongside Mohammed bin Salman and Gianni Infantino, looked on with obvious satisfaction.

Russia opened this 32-team, four-week football extravaganza with three precious points. They avoided the ignominy of becoming the first host nation to lose football’s great curtain-raiser. They survived Robbie Williams, the yawning build-up of pre-tournament pressure and the pre-match nerves.

Fiercely criticised and with very little expected of them, Russia got the job done.

Afterwards, Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov had to leave the media briefing momentarily to accept a phone call, before returning to say: “It was the head of state, who called me and asked me to share his thanks to the team and asked me to continue like this.”

Russia had not been expected to do this to the Saudis. To anybody.

“We are not trying to silence anybody,” Cherchesov said. “We are just doing our work. It’s just the beginning, not the end. We won 5-0 and got three points, but we could have drawn 1-1. Nothing would have changed.”

It took them 12 minutes to change the complexion of the match in their favour.

Saudi failed to clear a corner, Golovin crossed, Taiser Al Jassim slipped and Gazinsky headed back across goalkeeper Abdullah Al Mayouf and into the opposition goal. The Luzhniki erupted, Al Mayouf as well: Al Jassim had somehow found himself with two men to mark.

To their credit, Saudi had began well enough in possession. Yet they were too open throughout, allowing Russia to sit back and counter quick. In one such break, Alan Dzagoev, the once influential midfielder, surged forward and pulled his hamstring. His match ended on 22 minutes, perhaps his World Cup also.

He had waited seven years for one in his home country, football's cruelty laid bare.

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Read more:

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His disappointment inadvertently allowed Russia a second. This time, Golovin passed off to Roman Zobnin, who laid the ball to Cheryshev, Dzagoev’s replacement. Cheryshev feinted to shoot, scooped the ball away from two sliding Saudis and placed it high into Mayouf’s net. Russia were two to the good two minutes before half time.

Saudi, appearing at a first World Cup since 2006, sought a response. Not long into the second half, Mohammed Al Sahlawi failed to connect with a cross across goal. That was as good as it got. Without an international goal in more than a year, the calls for Fahad Al Muwallad’s inclusion grew ever more legitimate. Perhaps he should have started.

Al Muwallad was eventually introduced, just after the hour, but Russia always looked more like scoring. On 67 minutes, Zobnin forced Al Mayouf into action once more. Four minutes later, he collected the ball from his goal again.

Again Golovin provided the cross, again it demanded a teammate capitalised. Dzyuba did, heading home, as Russia hurtled towards the win. With moments left, Cheryshev arched his shot high into the Saudi net, gifting the game its best goal. Golovin's free-kick almost rivalled it, but it was splitting hairs.

His team had triumphed 5-0, delighted and delivered for the majority of the 78,000 jammed inside the Luzhniki.

It went exactly how they wanted.

Despite the damage, the disparagement and the despair, despite being the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, Russia opened a first World Cup on home soil with a first victory.