Russia smashes Saudi Arabia in World Cup opener, might not be worst host team ever

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Denis Cheryshev celebrates Russia’s second goal in its 2018 World Cup-opening win over Saudi Arabia. (Getty)
Denis Cheryshev celebrates Russia’s second goal in its 2018 World Cup-opening win over Saudi Arabia. (Getty)

Heading into the 2018 World Cup, there were legitimate questions about whether host nation Russia would be the worst home team in tournament history. It had not won a game of any kind since October. It had not won a World Cup game since 2002.

On the evidence of Thursday’s opener, it should avoid that ignominy. But in part because it was gifted the weakest group in World Cup history. And in part because it gets to play teams like Saudi Arabia.

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The Russians cruised to a 5-0 victory over the Saudis in a game that was, for 90 minutes, anything but exhilarating or inspiring. But it was nonetheless reassuring for the hosts, who put themselves in great position to get out of the group.

Aleksandr Golovin stars

The game was woefully short on quality by World Cup standards. But the one technically-gifted player on the field was the difference. That player was Aleksandr Golovin.

Golovin, a 22-year-old midfielder who has attracted interest from big clubs around Europe, served in a 12th-minute cross to create the 2018 World Cup’s first goal. The cross, coupled with a stumbling Saudi defender, presented Iury Gazinsky with a picture-perfect opportunity to score his first international goal:


There was nothing special about the cross, nor the finish. But that was the story of the day. Russia didn’t have to be special. It just had to take advantage of Saudi Arabia’s inferiority. The defending was laughably poor all evening.

Golovin would later put the game away by teeing up substitute Artem Dzyuba for Russia’s third:


And then he got his moment in the spotlight to put an exclamation put on the victory in second-half stoppage time. He won a free kick, then curled it over the Saudi wall and inside the near post to punctuate a wonderful opening day for the hosts.


Dzagoev’s heartbreak, Cheryshev’s elation

Golovin was behind the second goal as well. But the sequence of events that led to it began in the 23rd minute, when Alan Dzagoev pulled up on a sprint with a non-contact hamstring injury. He left the field dejected, and understandably so – he missed both Euro 2016 and the 2017 Confederations Cup due to injury, and might have just lost the rest of his 2018 World Cup too.

But his replacement was Denis Cheryshev. Cheryshev – the only player on the field who plays his club soccer outside the nation he represents – more or less put the game away before halftime with a silky first touch and strong finish:


But it was Golovin who created this chance as well, scurrying onto a through-ball, holding up play, and dishing out the pass before the final pass. He was the star of the day.

Cheryshev, though, will grab some of the headlines, because he scored Russia’s fourth with a wonderful outside-of-the-foot strike as the hosts poured it on.


Saudi Arabia’s ineptitude

Saudi Arabia, at times, played more aesthetic soccer than the Russians. Some of its players were better on the ball.

But Saudi Arabia’s problem is that it is built to play as a superior team, not as an inferior one. Its entire roster comes from its domestic league, and the majority of it comes from that league’s top two clubs. Those clubs and their players are accustomed to possessing the ball, and playing on the front foot.

Saudi Arabia, as Thursday demonstrated, is not going to be able to do that at the World Cup. Rather than play on the front foot, it’s going to be vulnerable. It’s going to get exposed. And even a team as ordinary as Russia was able to do just that.

The real highlight of the game

Vladimir Putin, sitting next to FIFA president Gianni Infantino, and two seats away from Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, celebrated Russia’s first goal just as you would expect an evil quasi-dictator to celebrate it:


Group A

Uruguay and Egypt face off in the other Group A opener on Friday, with Mohamed Salah set to play. Egypt and Russia are expected to compete for the runner-up slot, with Uruguay the clear favorite.

And with goal differential potentially pivotal, Russia’s five-goal win on Thursday put it in the driver’s seat for second place.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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