How Russia Beat Saudi Arabia in the World Cup Opener

Russia comprehensively thrashed Saudi Arabia, 5-0, in the opening game of its home World Cup. Yuri Gazinsky scored on a header 12 minutes in, and afterward Saudi Arabia could offer little resistance.

Russia’s second, third and fourth goals were all by substitutes: one by Artem Dzyuba and two by Denis Cheryshev. With time running out, Aleksandr Golovin got a fifth goal on a free kick, past a badly tired Saudi defense.

Saudi Arabia, a team whose players are virtually all based in their obscure home league, offered an air of mystery. But that was before the game. It became clear very quickly that they were no match for a Russian team that itself has not been a worldbeater in recent years.

Gazinsky’s header foiled the Saudi plan to work the counterattack, and the team seldom got the ball even deep into Russia’s territory after that. Russia itself took over the counterattacking and found the goal at its mercy time and time again.

More troubling to Russia was an apparent hamstring injury to midfielder Alan Dzagoev. But that did allow the team to bring in Cheryshev, who duly scored moments later.

Even at halftime, the Saudis looked broken, and it did not get better. Dzyuba scored on another header, likewise just after entering the game, then Cheryshev added his second in the 90th minute.

If that late goal seemed unfair to the Saudis, it got worse a moment later when Goliovin added No. 5 on a free kick in injury time.

“I think that a poor performance explains the result,” said Saudi Manager Juan Antonio Pizzi, adding, perhaps unnecessarily, “As for our strategy, we must change.”

It was the perfect start for the host nation, although its remaining group games, against Egypt and Uruguay, will be much sterner challenges.

“Egypt will be a different game, city and stadium,” said Manager Stanislav Cherchesov. “We need to meticulously prepare ourselves.”

As for Saudi Arabia, if it manages even a 2-0 loss, say, in its remaining games, it will seem like an impressive accomplishment.

Here’s how Russia won the opener:

Vladimir Putin Opens the World Cup

Vladimir Putin gave a speech in Russian welcoming the crowd and opening up the World Cup. There is always a surge of excitement around the world for the first game of the Cup, although that is tempered a bit this year because the match happens to be between the 67th and 70th ranked teams. As usual, the new World Cup brings a new FIFA ball: This year’s is white with gray pixilated hexagons.

3’: Saudi Arabia in Trouble Early

The first corner of the game went to Russia, and Saudi Arabia’s defensive anchor Osama Hawsawi was forced to clear it off the line. A dangerous situation for Saudi Arabia right away.

7’: Russia Plays Aggressor

Dzagoev and Zobnin have been getting a lot of space down the wings for Russia. So far they have not been able to get it into the box effectively, but Russia is definitely on the front foot so far.

Rory Smith: Hopefully, that goal settles Russia down – and the early signs are that there’s now a bit of confidence about the host – but the pace of the start stays high.

12’: GOAL! Russia Scores First World Cup Goal

Russia is ahead! Saudi players scampered back in some disarray (again). The ball pinged around the box, Roman Zobnin crossed right into the danger zone and Yury Gazinsky hammered it home with his head. So easy for Russia.

Andrew Das: In the rare moments when the Saudis have had the ball, they’ve shown they are pretty sharp with that one-touch passing in small spaces that comes from years of rondos, that soccer training game where a circle of players try to play keepaway from a couple of opponents in the middle.

But rondos are an effort to keep the ball inside the circle. They never really go anywhere. And neither are the Saudis.

15’: Russia Keeps Pressing

Almost two for Russia. Saudi keeper Al-Mayouf made a desperate lunge and fisted a ball away. 2-0 looks a lot more likely than 1-1 right now.

20’: Saudis Struggling for Control

The Saudis finally got a run of possession together, but it was by their defenders deep in their own territory, while Russia sat back, understandably, with a 1-0 lead. Think a comeback is in the offing? Saudi Arabia is 40-1 to win this match right now.

24’: Russia Loses Alan Dzagoev

Alan Dzagoev, who was a part of a number of Russia’s moves, pulls up with an apparent hamstring injury. Russia was forced into an early substitution: Denis Cheryshev checked in.

Rory Smith: That’s a significant moment for Russia: not in this game, necessarily, but for the country’s hopes of qualifying from the group stage and continuing its World Cup into the latter stages (a weird thing to say 20 minutes into the first game, but hear me out). Alan Dzagoev is — along with Aleksandr Golovin — one of possibly only two genuinely creative players Russia has. He’s always struggled with injury, but this is terrible timing for him, of course, and for his country. Losing him to what looked an awful lot like a popped hamstring may not affect the result today all that much, but he would have been important for Russia against Egypt and Uruguay, too. There’s now a risk he won’t be available for either.

30’: Saudi Arabia Finally Gets a Shot — and Misses

After a theatrical fall, Saudi Arabia was awarded a free kick from just outside the box. For the first time, Russia fans must sit up a little straighter. Salman Al Faraj did manage to get it on a teammate’s head, but the resulting shot is nowhere near goal.

36’: Saudi Arabia Exposed at the Back

Saudi Arabia, like most underdogs, probably expected to counterattack in this game. But the early Russia goal took away that opportunity. Saudi Arabia has been forced to be aggressive, and it has been Russia that has counterattacked. As a result, Saudi Arabia has looked very exposed at the back.

43’: GOAL. Russia leads 2-0.

It was bound to happen. Russia advanced into Saudi space with numbers, Denis Cheryshev got by the defense and had the keeper at his mercy. What a half-hour for Cheryshev. Sitting on the bench, suddenly thrust into the game by an injury, and now on the World Cup scoreboard.

Andrew Das: Two minutes earlier, Cheryshev tried that same cutback move he used to score the goal, but he seemed surprised that it had worked and flubbed the chance. This time he let two Saudis slide by and buried his shot in the top left corner from a narrow angle.

Halftime: Russia Leads Comfortably

A dominating performance by Russia, which comfortably leads by 2-0 at halftime. Remember when Saudi Arabia was 40-to-1 to win the game? Now they are 250-1. Even a draw is a real long-shot here.

The next time someone tries to prove a soccer point to you by citing possession stats, hit them up with this. It’s Saudi Arabia that has dominated possession in this game, 61 percent to 39 percent. That’s because Russia, with a lead, just sat back and calmly watched the Saudis pass it around, mostly ineffectively and mostly in their own half

Andrew Das: In many ways that half could not have gone better for Russia: two early goals, little fightback from the Saudis, and Golovin looked terrific. But the loss of Dzagoev to what was clearly a hamstring injury serious enough to drop him to the turf in mid-stride, is a serious blow. “A hamstring’s three weeks,” Rory Smith just said to me. And Russia doesn’t have three weeks left here. We’ve probably seen the last of Dzagoev, which is too bad for him, and his country.

52’: Another Close Call for Russia

After a series of touches in which Russia repeatedly out-skills the Saudis, Aleksandr Samedov skied a shot over the net.

56’: Al Sahlawi Scares Russia

Surprise, a chance for Saudi Arabia. Mohammad Al Sahlawi sprung free and got a shot off, but it went wide. Al Sahlawi is Saudi Arabia’s nominal striker, but until this moment we have seen little of him.

The fans of both teams look subdued in a curiously similar manner. For the Saudis, it is the long stare of the defeated. For the Russians, a look of some satisfaction but also the knowledge that far sterner challenges lie ahead.

70’: Russia Will Probably Score Again Soon

A shot by Zobin is spilled badly by Saudi keeper Al-Mayouf. That gives Smolov a good chance, which Al Mayouf has to dive on. Russia isn’t pressing with urgency, but Saudi Arabia may be giving them a third goal soon anyway.

71’: Goal. Russia Makes it 3-0

Told you. So easy, so easy. With the ball pinging around dangerously, Aleksandr Golovin had plenty of time to send in a perfect pass to the head of Artem Dzyuba. He was marked by just one man and muscled his way clear for the easy header. Like Cheryshev with the second goal, Dzyuba was a substitute.

Andrew Das: Rory Smith and I were just chatting about how big Dzyuba looks among the Saudis — like a dad who stepped into a U16 game because they were short a striker. And then he just overwhelmed his marker there and just like that Russia’s up 3-0.

91’: Goal. Denis Cheryshev Scores Again

Denis Cheryshev got his second goal, turning and firing into the top of the net. Sometimes a 4-0 score flatters the winners. Not this time. Saudi Arabia was terrible.

95’: One More, Just for Fun

This is just sad now. Russia gets a free kick and Aleksandr Golovin sails it into the net. 5-0.

Andrew Das: That was just piling on at the end by Russia, but it’s hard to blame them: the Saudis were just woefully overmatched. Russia will sure have its chest out tonight, and that’s a good thing for a tournament that might have suffered a little bit by a lousy effort from the home team. Egypt and Uruguay ought to be stiffer tests, and the Russians will have to face both without Alan Dzagoev. But there are worse things. They could be the Saudis right now, facing those same two opponents in the days to come.


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