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4 Talking Points From Russia's Emphatic 5-0 Win Over Saudi Arabia In World Cup Opener

The Russian team celebrate the opening goal of the World Cup
The Russian team celebrate the opening goal of the World Cup

Russia brought the curtain up on the 2018 World Cup with a 5-0 thumping of Saudi Arabia in Group A on Thursday.

Goals from Yury Gazinsky, substitutes Denis Cheryshev, who netted a brace, and Artem Dzyuba and Aleksandr Golovin made sure the hosts punished the Saudis’ poor defending and bluntness in attack.

Alan Dzagoev’s suspected hamstring injury did put a negative spin on a superb day, though. Here are four talking points from the Luzhniki Stadium.

Russia took an early lead and never really looked back
Robbie Williams kicked it off in the opening ceremony, and the party on the pitch started at a pace that suited the hosts perfectly. Juan Antonio Pizzi’s side began as they finished in Leverkusen, in their defeat to Germany on Friday; trusting their technical ability and getting the ball forward quickly. But their defensive frailties allowed the two Russian players most capable of hurting them, Dzagoev and Golovin, to find space and push forward themselves and it didn’t take long for the hosts to score the first goal of the tournament; Gazinsky’s cushioned header giving Adbullah Al-Maiouf no chance as it nestled just inside the far corner. Once the goal came, Russia settled in and began to hit Saudi Arabia on the counter attack; their fullbacks, former Chelsea man Yuri Zhirkov and Mario Fernandes, pushed forward at every opportunity and helped take a stranglehold on the game.

Every time Saudi Arabia lost the ball, which was becoming more frequent after Gazinsky’s opener, Russia had men forward and it looked as if a goal could come at any moment. Pizzi deserves great credit for the belief he has instilled in his players, but they were vulnerable and, most worryingly, unable to adapt to the situation. Mohamed Al-Sahlawi, their top scorer in qualification but without a goal in almost a year, went close to an equaliser and again in the second half. For all their possession, it was all too easy for Russia to break through the midfield, which put no pressure on the ball, and the two centre-backs, because of their high line. After four or five warnings, they were punished as Russia again won the ball high up the pitch, before keeping their heads and doubling their lead through Cheryshev before half time. He then scored the goal of the night as the clock wound down.

Alan Dzagoev’s injury could devastate Russian hopes
In the build up to the tournament, all the talk surrounding Russia was that they are in the worst shape they have been for years. Their manager, Stanislav Cherchesov, replaced Leonid Slutsky after a disappointing campaign at Euro 2016 two years ago, but they didn’t show much of an improvement at last summer’s Confederations Cup. Enthusiasm was at a premium, but there are some players with star quality and an ability to win them the game. Dzagoev, Golokin and the striker, Fyodor Smolov, were enjoying themselves, running at the very heart of the Saudi defence from the early stages.

Dzagoev’s injury, which looked serious enough to rule him out of the rest of the tournament, forced him off and meant Cherchesov had to go back to the drawing board. Villarreal midfielder Cheryshev replaced him, and the whole of Russia held its breath. They did miss Dzagoev’s creativity initially, but the industry of Cheryshev brought more balance to the side once Golovin, who scored a stunning free kick at the end, moved in field from the left. Against more organised teams, such as Uruguay, Russia could really miss Dzagoev, though.

It was surprising to see Saudi Arabia start without Fahad Al-Muwallad

Saudi Arabia are at their fifth World Cup finals and their first for 12 years, but now, for the first time, they look as though they have a way they want to play. Pizzi may have only taken over from Bert van Marwijk, now Australia coach, in November, but the same principles he showed when in charge of Chile have been evident, even if they proved costly. They have proven themselves to be dangerous in between the lines, both in spurts on Thursday afternoon and against Germany, but they continued to lack a cutting edge in attack, and the same issues with their defence were obvious.

Fahad Al-Muwallad may have had a mixed time in Spain with Levante, but Pizzi’s decision not to start him was strange. Salem Al-Dawsari threatened, backed up by Yasir Al-Shahrani at left back, but as soon as Saudi Arabia made inroads on the Russian 18-yard box, their momentum immediately evaporated. The hosts dropped off deep into the game, mostly without concern; Al-Muwallad, the ‘Saudi Arabian Messi’, could have added bite to the attack before it was too late.

Artem Dzyuba gives his country a timely reminder of his quality

Arguably Russia’s most prolific striker, Dzyuba has had a tough year. Having scored 29 goals in 70 league games for Zenit Saint-Petersburg, the volatile 29-year-old fell out with then manager Roberto Mancini and was sent on loan to Arsenal Tula, for whom he then scored a late equaliser against Zenit. A rocky relationship with Cherchesov has hindered his international career, but his record for his country has always been impressive. After coming on deep into the second half, he made sure of the win with his very first touch, using his 6 ft 5 frame to his advantage, nodding in Golovin’s cross.

Next up for Russia are Egypt, who will have a certain Mohamed Salah fully fit and firing. Dzyuba’s impact when he came on showed their tactical variety, and suddenly the sun is shining a lot brighter in Moscow than it was.

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