Russia 5 - 0 S Arabia: Hosts get confidence boost they needed

Russia's Denis Cheryshev scores his sides second goal against Saudi Arabia. Picture: Clive Rose/Getty Images
Russia's Denis Cheryshev scores his sides second goal against Saudi Arabia. Picture: Clive Rose/Getty Images
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There are far greater threats lurking for Team Russia, as they are known, in their bid to make a genuinely strong impression in their home World Cup.

But you can only beat what’s put in front of you, as they say, and yesterday this huge and diverse nation celebrated collectively as the hosts opened their account by sweeping majestically past a desperately poor Saudi Arabia.

Walking round the streets of Moscow in the days before the tournament, you wouldn’t have known the Russian capital was about to host an event that was so important in terms of image and public relations. The usual trademark flags and bunting were conspicuous by their absence.

Everyday Russians are fiercely patriotic – the older ones at least – but many, it seems, are not that fussed about football.

And, rarely, if ever, can World Cup hosts have entered the tournament so short on confidence. At No 70 in the Fifa rankings, Russia are the lowest-ranked team but no host nation has ever lost in their opening game.

They got exactly what they needed – an early goal to calm their nerves – as Yuri Gazinskiy scored the first of the tournament – and his first in international football – jumping highest despite a suspicion of a push to head home Aleksandr Golovin’s cross.

Despite sometimes looking comfortable on the ball, Saudi
Arabia have a tendency to overplay and they almost conceded a second when keeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf was forced to claw the ball away after a deflected shot from Fyodor Smolov threatened to loop over his head.

Alan Dzagoev – joint top scorer at Euro 2012 – appeared to pull his hamstring and was replaced by Villarreal’s Denis Cheryshev, one of only two Russian players who ply their trade outside of their home country. Dzagoev looked devastated, his World Cup potentially over almost before it had started.

The Saudis had pledged to play without fear but instead were totally overawed and will need to do something radical to avoid exiting the group stage without a point.

Instead of getting to half-time with no further damage they conceded a second at the worst possible time as substitute Cheryshev, the best player on the pitch, took out two defenders and smashed the ball into the net.

The Saudis have not won a game at a World Cup finals since 1994 and were not about to break that sequence in what was their first appearance for 12 years. Russia were far too quick for them and, on 70 minutes, Artem Dzyuba made it 3-0 – 90 seconds after coming off the bench.

The Saudis were out on their feet and their humiliation was completed in stoppage time, not once but twice. Cheryshev grabbed his second before Golovin’s sumptuous free-kick made it five.

It won’t always be as easy as this over the next few weeks. Or perhaps Team Russia have been kidding us all along and have been waiting for their moment ever since the draw was made.