Matthias Schrader/Associated Press
Russia kicked off the 2018 World Cup with a comfortable 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia on Thursday at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
Yury Gazinsky gave the hosts the lead after 12 minutes when he headed home Aleksandr Golovin’s cross. Substitute Denis Cheryshev—who replaced the injured Alan Dzagoev after just 23 minutes—then doubled their lead shortly before half-time.
Artem Dzyuba came off the bench to score a header in the 71st minute, Cheryshev grabbed a second with a fine finish in the 90th minute, and Golovin curled in a free-kick with the final kick of the game.
Are Russia Better Than People Think?
Russia are the lowest-ranked team of the World Cup, according to FIFA. Thus, despite acting as hosts, they entered the tournament with little expectation of even making it out of Group A.
Indeed, they were booed off the pitch in their final warm-up friendly—a disappointing 1-1 draw with Turkey—and hadn’t won at all since September 2017.
Despite the lack of expectations, the hosts were under pressure to perform in the opening match of the tournament and could have easily crumbled, but they held their nerve to produce a strong performance.
They were a cut above their opponents throughout and have already exceeded their recent showings on football’s biggest stage:
Squawka Football @Squawka
Russia's total goals at their last three #WorldCup tournaments:
2002: 4 goals
2014: 2 goals
2018: 5 goals
This is their first game. 😅 https://t.co/RMF9LQ6tT7
Football journalist Gary Al-Smith was impressed with some of their attacking play:
Gary = @garyalsmith
The build up play between Samedov, Smolov and Zhirkov has been superb so far for Russia. The trio have really terrorized the Saudi Arabia back line.
However, we should hardly be getting carried away with the hosts just yet—the match could scarcely have been made easier for them by Saudi Arabia, who were poor at the back and rarely offered anything resembling a threat going forward.
Bleacher Report’s Sam Tighe noted as much:
Sam Tighe @stighefootball
FT #RUS 5-0 #KSA. An incredibly easy start for Russia. Still difficult to gauge their strength due to how poor Saudi Arabia were. Golovin (MOTM) rinsed them in the channels + when surging into space. Ran his socks off and that free kick 😮. Cheryshev with two beauties! #WorldCup
Russia’s clash with Egypt on Tuesday should provide a much better barometer of their chances of progressing to the knockout phase, but they’ve given themselves a chance with a confidence-boosting win here.
Cheryshev, Golovin Emerge as Stabilising Force for Russia in Dzagoev Absence
When Dzagoev limped out midway through the first half with what appeared to be a hamstring injury, Russia’s hopes of achieving anything significant looked to be leaving the pitch with him.
However, Cheryshev and Golovin quickly showed that would not be the case.
The former injected energy and intent into the side. He consolidated the hosts’ lead on a Russian counter-attack, showing a cool head to commit two defenders before rifling home. For his second, he swept a nonchalant effort past Abdullah Al-Mayouf with the outside of his left foot.
Tom Williams @tomwfootball
Congratulations, Denis Cheryshev, on your impending €110 million return to Real Madrid.
Cheryshev is one of just two players in the squad based outside Russia, along with Club Brugge’s Vladimir Gabulov. But as he proved, he really should have started the match.
Meanwhile Golovin—who also supplied the cross for Dzyuba’s goal—was similarly impactful, per Squawka Football:
Squawka Football @Squawka
Aleksandr Golovin's #WorldCup game by numbers vs. #KSA
25 passes completed
5 chances created
Not the worst start. https://t.co/QS2mHKIHHJ
Dzagoev’s injury could deny Russia their best player for the remainder of the tournament, but they certainly have alternatives who can be similarly important.
Saudi Arabia Are out of Their Depth
Of the teams present at the World Cup, only Russia are ranked lower than Saudi Arabia by FIFA, but the latter were well out of their depth here.
The Green Falcons attempted to play a possession-based game implemented by manager Juan Antonio Pizzi, but their inability to keep the ball frequently left them open to counter-attacks, made worse by their total lack of defensive discipline.
Sports journalist Jonas Giaever painted a sorry picture of their defence, while colleague Karl Matchett fears for them against the rest of Group A:
Jonas Giæver @CheGiaevara
There are rivers running in the spaces between the Saudi defenders.
Karl Matchett @karlmatchett
#KSA best outlet is down left wing if they can link LB Al-Shahrani with Al-Dawsari's surging runs forward.
But not many pushing up with them, not much combination play outside area. Need to gamble or it looks over for them.
Suarez & Salah will absolutely wreck this defence.
The team weren’t helped by Pizzi’s decision not to start Levante forward Fahad Al-Muwallad, their biggest source of pace, against a slow team that included 38-year-old Sergey Ignashevich in defence.
Football writer Lucas Swain believes their performance has worrying implications for the expanded World Cup in 2026:
Lucas Swain @LucasSwain95
If Infantino is watching this and honestly thinks expanding the competition for another 16 nations will benefit the tournament then I give up.
Saudi Arabia still have to play the two most difficult teams in their group.
Without an enormous improvement, they could just as easily be humiliated against both Egypt and Uruguay, too.