Having started the 2018 World Cup at the bottom of the participating teams' FIFA rankings pile, Russia once again made light work of all the pre-tournament scepticism by swatting aside Egypt 3–1 at Saint Petersburg.
The victory — their second in as many games — has all but sealed a Round of 16 spot for the hosts with the match against Uruguay on Monday likely to be of academic interest. Three goals in the space of 15 second-half minutes did the job for Russia, who were in buoyant form coming off the back of a 5–0 win over Saudi Arabia.
The big news at the start of the game was the return of Mohamed Salah to the Egypt starting lineup. The star attacker warmed the bench in the Pharaohs’ 1–0 loss to Uruguay last week but on Tuesday, coach Hector Cuper could ill afford to leave his biggest star out.
However, it was another player’s return to the starting eleven that influenced the result more than Salah’s. Artem Dzyuba started his first game for Russia since October 2016, and the 29-year-old duly vindicated manager Stanislav Cherchesov’s decision.
Russia’s directness and intensity
It was around Dzyuba that Russia built their game. A routine of direct attacks aided by long balls, amid the cacophony of noise at the St Petersburg Stadium, unsettled Egypt. A team that had Salah, Trezeguet and Abdallah Said for quick combination play behind striker Marwan Mohsen found itself directed into chaos by Russia’s high-intensity start.
The hosts were so intense from the outset that almost all their attempts (6 out of 8) inside the opening half were from outside the box — a shoot on sight policy that helped them pin Egypt inside their own area and earn themselves greater territory.
Hitting long balls to Dzyuba was the go-to plan for Russia with runners for second balls feeding off the big striker. Aleksandr Golovin and Denis Cheryshev interchanged on the left half of the pitch as Salah stayed high up for Egypt on that side, but all of the early impetus came to nothing for the hosts at the end of a goalless first half.
Egypt clawed back into the game after the early Russian onslaught and Salah almost scored twice before halftime, proving how fine the margins could be.
Marked man Salah’s bittersweet World Cup debut
The Liverpool man looked out of sync in his first outing and barely had a sniff in the game’s early exchanges. It was only after the opening quarter that he came into the game. Having said that, he was shackled well by the experienced Yuri Zhirkov, who was also supported at times by the backtracking Cheryshev.
Russia's directness meant they tried to advance the ball upfield as early as possible after regaining possession, negating any Egyptian counter-press. That meant Salah was increasingly isolated against one of Russia’s two central midfielders, left back Zhirkov and at times, left centre back Sergey Ignashevich.
His higher positioning meant Said had to tuck in with the midfield line to provide better stability, and this, in turn, left Salah with very little support, and outnumbered when he received the ball higher up.
With Egypt having to chase the game as soon as the second half started, Salah played more centrally but to barely any effect. He, however, managed to mark his World Cup debut with a goal, a consolation penalty that he himself won to add some respectability to the scoreline.
Game over in 15 minutes
An innocuous-looking shot from Roman Zobnin in the 46th minute continued Russia’s first-half trend of outside-the-box shot location, but Ahmed Fathy’s suicidal touch while clearing Zobnin’s effort resulted in an own goal, ceding the advantage to the hosts. Russia 1–0 Egypt at 47 minutes.
So much for Egypt’s efforts to go into the halftime break at 0–0 that it only needed one poor touch to break open the floodgates. Negative game states (trailing in a game) often force the trailing team to take more risks and Egypt — keen to equalise by attacking with more numbers — were undone by two long balls from the two Russian centre backs, all inside four minutes.
Russia’s second was all Cheryshev’s determination; the ex-Real Madrid man won an aerial duel before ghosting into the area to side foot home Mario Fernandes’ cutback. Russia 2–0 Egypt at 59 minutes.
Predictably, Dzyuba was involved in both goals; Russia’s third came after a long set-piece delivery was expertly brought down by the Zenit St Petersburg man before slotting it into the net past both Ali Gabr and goalkeeper El-Shenawy. Russia 3–0 Egypt at 62 minutes. Game over!
Russia have now scored more goals in this World Cup (8) than they had in their previous two World Cups combined (6 across 2002 and 2014). They even have Cheryshev leading the Golden Boot race and Golovin with the most number of assists. Against quite a few odds, it’s suddenly starting to look so much better for the hosts than what it was a week ago. Home advantage, anyone?
Updated Date: Jun 20, 2018 16:31:46 IST