The game was over, and had been for a long time, when the free-kick was paid. Saudi Arabia’s Taisir Al-Jassim was just a little rough with Aleksandr Golovin on the edge of the box, and as a result Russia’s bright young star was standing over the ball to take the last kick of the game. With it, he nonchalantly unleashed a devilish free-kick which evaded the wall, beat a desperate Abdullah Al-Mayouf and lodged itself in the top corner. It was Russia’s second goal in stoppage time alone, and was a fitting way to end a dominant, if scarcely believable, 5-0 win. There were doubts about Russia going into this tournament. In front of a parochial home crowd, they showed that they can be a force to be reckoned with.
The signs were there from the start. Saudi Arabia looked strong when they got through Russia’s effective midfield press. Unfortunately for them, such moves were few and far between, with most resulting in turnovers and leaving them vulnerable on the counter. Russia looked more clinical, and from the start they looked ready to do some damage. Soon it was a matter of when, not if, the hosts would score.
It took them just under 12 minutes. Yuri Zhirkov’s dangerous corner to the front post was cleared well, but it only went as far as Golovin, who cleverly found himself in acres of space. Golovin’s subsequent delivery was perfect, landing on the head of an unmarked Yury Gazinsky and leaving the Saudis helpless. The header was directed towards the bottom corner, and Al-Mayouf didn’t stand a chance. It wasn’t going to get any better.Embed from Getty Images
Denis Cheryshev (in red) scores Russia’s second goal as Omar Hawsawi (left), Mohammed Al-Breik (right) and Abdullah Otayf (centre) watch on. Cheryshev scored twice for the Russians, providing incisive run from the left wing.
If the Saudis were hoping for some respite after going behind early they didn’t get it. Instead, Russia rammed home their advantage, continuing to press the Saudis in midfield and continuing to hit them with dangerous attacks starting in their forward half. For their part, the Green Falcons aided and abetted their opponents with their shocking play in the middle. Their touch was barbaric, and there was always a Russian midfielder ready to seize on their errors. Up front, Mohammed Al-Sahlawi was a lonely figure, often launching an ineffective one-man press on the Russian defenders. He was so ineffectual that no-one would have noticed had he not been there.
Meanwhile, captain Osama Hawsawi had his hands full cleaning up after his teammates. The experienced defender showed his quality, and it seemed as if the Saudis had weathered the storm. Then, minutes before the half, they conceded again. Predictably, it came from a mistake, made by Osama’s namesake and defensive partner Omar. A heavy touch caught the Green Falcons out, and soon Denis Cheryshev – an early substitute for the injured Alan Dzagoev – had some space in the box. What happened next was comical. Cheryshev just stopped, showing exemplary control, and merely watched as not one but two Saudi defenders slid straight past him expecting the shot. Having dealt with them, he promptly slammed it into the top corner.
Saudi Arabia began to settle into the match in the second half, stringing more passes together against a Russian press that wasn’t quite as intense. They had their best chance of the match when Mohammed Al-Breik’s cross drifted across the goalmouth, but neither Al-Sahlawi nor Al-Jassim could get a foot to it. The moment was lost, but Saudi Arabia seemed to have regained some hope. They were finding some possession and territory, and although the Russians were still making dangerous raids into their attacking third there was a sense that the Saudis now had a chance of scoring. Then Russia scored again.Embed from Getty Images
Artem Dzyuba celebrates after scoring Russia’s third goal. Dzyuba had been on for a minute when the chance came to him, and the goal was scored with his first touch.
The third came courtesy of another delightful Golovin cross. Once again, the talented attacking midfielder found himself with space and time to work with after breezing into the box against the laissez-faire Saudi defence. Once again, his delivery was flawless, finding formidable substitute Artem Dzyuba at the edge of the six-yard box. Once again, the chance was finished off comfortably. Russia were just too good.
Then came their injury time blitz. The game had settled into a bit of a lull, as neither side had a great deal to play for. That was before Cheryshev stepped up again. It was an innocuous looking attack, consisting of a long ball from defence directed at the towering presence of Dzyuba, but Cheryshev turned it into something magical. Collecting the knockdown from the powerful striker, he shot with the outside of his left boot, with the ball flying past Al-Mayouf. The Green Falcons’ spirit was broken, and Golovin’s beautiful finish was merely the icing on the cake.
For Russia, this win will give them the confidence – and the goal difference – to have a real crack at a spot in the second round. For Saudi Arabia, the lowest-ranked team in Russia, this humiliation (at the hands of the second lowest-ranked team) could well shatter their confidence, and it doesn’t bode well for the games ahead. Their stay at the World Cup is almost certain to be brief, but this campaign could end up feeling like a very long one for all involved.
Moscow – Luzhniki Stadium
Russia 5 (Gazinsky 12, Cheryshev 43, 90+1, Dzyuba 71, Golovin 90+4)
Saudi Arabia 0
Referee: Néstor Pitana (Arg)
Russia (4-2-3-1): Akinfeev – Mário Fernandes, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Zhirkov; Gazinsky, Zobnin; Samedov (Kuzyayev 64), Dzagoev (Cheryshev 24), Golovin; Smolov (Dzyuba 70).
Saudi Arabia (4-5-1): Abdullah Al-Mayouf – Al-Breik, Osama Hawsawi, Omar Hawsawi, Yasser Al-Shehrani; Salem Al-Dawsari, Otayf (Fahad Al-Muwallad 64), Salman Al-Faraj, Taisir Al-Jassim, Yahya Al-Shehri (Hattan Bahebri 74); Al-Sahlawi (Muhannad Assiri 84).
Aleksandr Golovin places a free-kick into the top corner to score Russia’s fifth goal. Golovin was the star for the Russians, providing two assists in addition to his goal and setting up attacks with his hard work.
1. Aleksandr Golovin (Russia)
Golovin was everywhere, fighting hard for 90 minutes and receiving a fair reward when he picked up a late goal. He assisted two goals with beautiful crosses from the left and the right, and he seamlessly shifted from the left wing to the centre to cover for the injured Dzagoev. His ferocity in defence contributed to a number of turnovers, capping off a brilliant World Cup debut for the 22-year-old.
2. Denis Cheryshev (Russia)
Cheryshev came off the bench after Dzagoev’s injury, and provided a very dangerous attacking threat from the left wing. He scored twice, and managed to make a number of incisive runs to burst through the insipid Saudi defence. His second goal, coming when the match was already sealed, was an incredible finish with the outside of the boot.
3. Yuri Zhirkov (Russia)
Zhirkov showed his experience throughout the match, adding extra impetus to the Russian attack from left-back and combining very well with Cheryshev. His delivery into the box was always dangerous, and he managed to get more involved on the defensive side of the ball than most of Russia’s players. He put in a workmanlike and effective performance.
4. Artem Dzyuba (Russia)
Dzyuba came on in the 70th minute, scored with his first touch and looked much more dangerous than Fyodor Smolov. Maybe the Saudis were already broken by the time he came on, but he showed excellent skill for his massive frame and caused plenty of problems. He will have to come into serious consideration for their next match.
5. Osama Hawsawi (Saudi Arabia)
The captain of the Green Falcons is the one man who can hold his head high after an otherwise dismal showing. His diligence in defence was admirable, especially as his teammates placed him in compromising positions time and time again. He was the only member of defence who looked solid both in and out of possession, and was doing his absolute best to hold it together. It just wasn’t possible.