If the inaugural ceremony of the FIFA World Cup 2018 that took place before kick-off left fans wanting more, it wouldn’t be wrong to say the way the game against hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia in Moscow followed a similar path. At full time, Russia not only took all 3 points, but also made the win a complete massacre, thumping Saudi Arabia 5-0. It was exactly the beginning the hosts would’ve wanted and exactly the opposite of what Saudi would have expected.
The game got off to a cagey start, with both teams still figuring out how to go about business. The majority of the battle was played out in midfield and there were quite a few loose balls and poor passes here and there by both teams. Against the run of play, but expectedly, Russia opened the scoring. Saudi’s failure to fully clear a corner gifted Russia a chance that they capitalized upon ever so well. The ball eventually fell to Alexsandr Golovin, who whipped in a cross, which was met by Yury Gazinskiy with a header that was well placed and beyond the reach of goalkeeper Al-Mayoof. The first goal of the 2018 World Cup had just been scored and clearly, there was more to come. However, the home team was dealt a blow when Alan Dzagoev went down clutching his hamstring in pain, signaling a premature end to his time on the pitch. On came Denis Cheryshev to replace him and in a matter of a little less than 20 minutes, the former Real Madrid man put his stamp on the game. With 43 minutes on the clock, Russia raced forward on the counter and Roman Zobnin passed to Cheryshev inside the penalty box, but the pass didn’t seem to have enough in it to reach the Villarreal forward. However, two Saudi defenders slid in, and in the process, missed the ball completely, leaving Cheryshev unmarked and a clever touch gave him the space to shoot and he finished brilliantly into the top left corner to double the Russians’ lead. At halftime, Russia was in complete control at 2-0 and Saudi were almost never in the game for the first 45 minutes.
The second half began on a more optimistic note for Saudi Arabia and on 56 minutes, they nearly halved the deficit when a dangerous ball in was flicked on at the near post, but no one could apply the finishing touch as the ball rolled out for a goal kick. And that would be the closest Saudi Arabia would come to scoring till the end of the game. Plenty of half-chances came the way of both teams, with Saudi having the higher share, but their inefficiency in possession and several instances of giving away the ball in their own defensive half meant the team was constantly put under pressure. On 70 minutes, Russia made their second substitution as the towering striker Artem Dzyuba, who had scored 8 goals in 12 international appearances before this one, came on for Fyodor Smolov and a minute later, he was on the scoresheet with his first touch of the game. Saudi were beginning to crack under the pressure of the Russians and the defense was looking shakier by the minute. Yet again, Russia found itself in a position of advantage and Golovin sent in a cross from the edge of the area which Dzyuba placed perfectly beyond Al-Mayoof to make it 3-0. The game, set, match, Russia. But there was more to come.
After the third goal, the game once again became a midfield battle with both teams fighting it out to keep hold of the ball. Russia, though, came out stronger again and was in the ascendancy, making several forays forward and keeping the Saudi defense on their toes the whole while. As the match entered its final minutes, Cheryshev pulled out a piece of absolute magic. An aerial ball hovering around the area was won by Dzyuba who knocked it into the path of Cheryshev inside the penalty area. Cheryshev, after taking a couple of touches, struck a thunderbolt with the outside of his foot and the ball curled its way beyond the keeper and into the net in what was a sensational finish. Not a bad way, time or place to score your first international goals at all. As the match entered the final minute of stoppage time, the Saudi players were clearly frustrated with the way they had been dominated throughout the game, and that resulted in a foul a few meters outside the penalty area. Golovin, two assists to his name already, put the icing on the cake and capped a near perfect ‘Man of The Match’ performance with a curling free-kick that beat Al-Mayoof for the 5th time on the night. And this was the best, up there with Cheryshev’s beauty, because the margin for error was extremely low, but Golovin got the ball to go up, curl and then down in the best possible way to stamp his seal of authority on the game with a moment of pure footballing genius.