Politics and football are allied on certain aspects in every corner of the world, even when it is the biggest spectacle of the concerned sport. Ever since Russia were awarded the rights to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup, there have been consternation about potential discrimination to players and visiting fans, the country's human rights situation and Vladimir Putin's worsening diplomatic relations with much of the western world, especially because of the Russian President's approach of soft power grab in Europe through the FIFA World Cup.
Russia, for all its military firepower and intelligence assets, has been rendered slightly inconsequential since the collapse of the Soviet Union, more so in light of the economic sanctions put in place against them, making the 2018 FIFA World Cup a significant cultural conduit for Putin, but all the background noise faded away as football took centre stage at the refurbished Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow as early as the twelfth minute through Yuri Gazinsky's opening goal.
Gazinsky was barely two-years-old when the disintegration of the USSR in 1991 changed the political landscape of his country, and on Thursday, the midfielder's first international goal in his first appearance in over fifteen months paved the way for a 5-0 rout of Saudi Arabia to mark the commencement of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Russia headed into the World Cup as the lowest ranked team in the FIFA, a mantle Saudi Arabia are likely to seize come end of the tournament, but the injury-depleted hosts were buoyed by the occasion to put in a flawless display. Stanislav Cherchesov abandoned his three-man defence and opted for a traditional 4-2-3-1 while Saudi Arabia lined up in a 4-1-4-1 formation.
The match was evenly contested for most of the first half as both teams adopted a cautious approach to build-up play. As the minutes ticked by and the hosts settled into a comfortable rhythm, it became progressively difficult for Juan Antonio Pizzi's Saudi Arabia to assert themselves in spite of their superlative ball possession. Russia chose to drive straight at the Asian country's backline every time they had the ball, the Green Falcons failing to come up with a solution for the Russian midfielders' late, incisive passes to an overlapping runner between the channels.
Russia's first goal came off a corner earned through such a ploy - although Saudi Arabia cleared the initial corner, Aleksandr Golovin combined with veteran Yuri Zhirkov on the left flank to loop in a cross into the penalty area which was slotted in by Gazinsky. Minutes later, Russia's attacking midfielder-in-chief Alan Dzagoev would limp off with a hamstring injury, but substitute Denis Cherysev put in an inspired performance, one which prompted Russian supporters to wonder why the Real Madrid academy graduate wasn't handed a start.
Cheryshev's brace was symbolic of the gulf in class between the two nations. If his first goal was a consequence of his technical abilities shining through, side-lining an inept Saudi defense with a quick piece of skill followed by an well-executed shot, his second of the night was a spectacular moment of individual brilliance as his shot with the outside of his left boot from the edge of the penalty area swirled over an outstretched Abdullah Al-Mayoof.
Equally crucial to Russia's display was another substitute Artem Dzyuba who scored the third of the night and teed up Cheryshev's stoppage-time stunner. The hosts are not the favourites in Group A by any means, but Cherchesov does have a few skilful players who can outsmart any opposition on their days. Aleksandr Golovin, arguably the Sbornaya's brightest talent, capped off his sterling night with an inch-perfect free-kick to complete Saudi Arabia's pummelling.
If excellent finishing from the Russians were to blame for the Falcons' misery, Saudi Arabia certainly did not help themselves as they repeatedly gave the ball away in dangerous areas and struggled to deal with textbook situations in their defensive third. The collective shambles of the Saudi Arabia backline, in turn, coerced their attackers to attempt ambitious moves without much success, resulting in a disjointed shape and a pitiful display.
Sometimes direct football is the best modus operandi, especially for teams without earth-shattering talents in their ranks. Russia kept it simple and reaped the rewards, while Saudi Arabia committed schoolboy errors and paid the price.
Saudi Arabia must regroup quickly, while Russia should do away with any elation for the next two matches will be more difficult for both nations - both Egypt and Uruguay have far more accomplished players in their midst. While the Russian performance invited a call of appreciation for Cherchesov from President Putin, the looks of incredulity shared by Putin with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia after every Russian golazo were a sight to behold, or as he worded it "the power of humanistic beginning" of the most "spectacular, vibrant, uncompromising game" on the planet.
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Updated Date: Jun 15, 2018 13:16:25 IST