It appears that Russia have been underestimated. They entered the World Cup as the second-worst ranked team in the tournament. They had played just three competitive games in the last two years, and their defensive situation was so dire that 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich reversed his retirement to help fill the holes in their back four. At least they were hosting the event, although it’s not clear whether they would have qualified without the automatic qualification granted to the hosts. Going in, it was easy to write them off. Now, after two comfortable victories, Russia have all but sealed their place in the knockout stages with a game to spare. When they beat Saudi Arabia, whose defence completely and utterly failed them, it wasn’t too hard to write the 5-0 victory off as a damning indictment on the insipid Saudis. When they beat Egypt, with the Pharaohs bolstered by the return of in-form attacker Mohamed Salah, there was no more writing the Russians off. They’re almost certain to get out of Group A, and coming off the high of two convincing wins they will be a very tough opponent.
All eyes were on Salah as the teams took the field. Egypt’s star winger has been the subject of much conjecture since he left the Champions League final with a shoulder injury, and there was plenty of doubt surrounding his availability for the tournament. When he sat out their tournament opener, Egypt looked devoid of any genuine attacking threat. As such, the return of the world’s most in-form forward, even at less-than-full fitness, was a massive boost for the Egyptians. Then he barely touched the ball for the first 20 minutes. It was Russia, brimming with confidence after their dominant first-up win, who dictated terms early. They came out hard and left the Egyptian defence scrambling on a number of occasions, especially when Aleksandr Golovin turned the ball over deep in attack and fired a shot just wide of Mohamed El-Shenawy’s goal.Embed from Getty Images
Mohamed Salah reacts after the final whistle. Salah came into Egypt’s team hoping to help keep their World Cup hopes alive, but his return couldn’t get them across the line.
Soon, the Egyptians had begun to settle, but neither side was ready to take the heat out of the contest. Egypt just started to provide a threat. Egyptian striker Marwan Mohsen fought hard for every ball, and Trézéguet provided a touch of class on the left wing. As Egypt grew into the contest, Salah began to find the ball at his feet more often, cutting infield and finding space to pass and shoot. Despite the pace of the game, and the fact that Russia largely had a free reign in attack down the left with Salah not performing any real defensive duties, neither side created many clear chances. As for Salah, his best moment came shortly before the break, when he turned Yuri Zhirkov and fired a left-footed shot just wide of the Russian goal. He had worked himself into the game, his blistering pace was clearly still there and it seemed like he could return to something nearing his best in the second half.
Instead, the game was all but over about 15 minutes into the second half. Russia took the lead just after the break following a series of errors. First, Mohamed El-Shenawy decided to punch Golovin’s seemingly harmless instead of catching it, giving Roman Zobnin the chance to put the ball back into the box. Then, to compound his goalkeeper’s mistake, Ahmed Fathy’s clumsy attempt to prevent the ball from reaching Russian man mountain Artem Dyuba rebounded off his knee towards the bottom corner. Ali Gabr just watched, and El-Shenawy’s dive to stop the errant challenge came too late. With Egypt needing a win to give themselves a realistic chance of progressing, Fathy’s own goal made their task a lot harder.
Then Denis Cheryshev stepped up to double the lead and send the Russian fans into raptures. Before this tournament, Cheryshev hadn’t scored at an international level, and he wasn’t expected to be a huge factor in Russia’s success. Then, coming off the bench against Saudi Arabia, he scored twice. Elevated to the starting line-up for Russia’s second game, the left winger was just as effective. When Mário Fernandes received the ball from Aleksandr Samedov inside the box and pulled it back looking for a teammate, Cheryshev was there, and open. He made no mistake.Embed from Getty Images
Artem Dzyuba (second from left) is swamped by teammates after scoring Russia’s third goal. Dzyuba’s effort put Russia 3-0 up, and gave them an unassailable lead in the match.
If Egypt had any remaining hope of salvaging a point from the game, it was extinguished a few minutes later. The play started innocuously enough, with Ilya Kutepov taking a free-kick inside Russia’s half and hacking it long towards Dzyuba at the edge of the penalty area. Dzyuba was another player who came off the bench in the tournament opener, and earned himself a start against Egypt by scoring with his first touch of the ball. Now, after receiving Kutepov’s hopeful pass forward, the striker used his giant frame to barge Ahmed Hegazi out of the way, used his surprisingly good touch to beat Gabr and fired the ball past El-Shenawy into the back of the net.
Salah managed to nab a consolation goal when he slammed a penalty past Igor Akinfeev (after he was dragged down in the box), but it was too little, too late for the Pharaohs. Russia’s three goals in 15 minutes had effectively killed off all resistance, and as the game meandered towards its inevitable conclusion it was hard to escape the thought that Russia are a lot better than their form leading in would suggest. It was hard to get a read on Russia after their first-up win over Saudi Arabia simply because the Saudis were so woeful. After repeating the feat against Egypt, it’s clear that Stanislav Cherchesov’s men are capable of making a genuine impact.
Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
Russia 3 (Fathy 47 og, Cheryshev 59, Dzyuba 62)
Egypt 1 (Salah 73 pen)
Referee: Enrique Cáceres (Par)
Russia (4-2-3-1): Akinfeev – Mário Fernandes, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Zhirkov (Kudryashov 86); Gazinsky, Zobnin; Samedov, Golovin, Cheryshev (Kuzyayev 74); Dzyuba (Smolov 79).
Egypt (4-2-3-1): El-Shenawy – Fathy, Ali Gabr, Hegazi, Abdel-Shafy; Elneny (Warda 64), Tarek Hamed; Salah, Abdallah Said, Trézéguet (Ramadan Sobhi 68); Marwan Mohsen (Kahraba 82).
1. Roman Zobnin (Russia)
Zobnin put in a huge effort all game, getting himself forward from the centre of midfield while still performing all of his essential tasks as a holding midfielder. He was the last Russian to touch the ball before Fathy put it into his own net, and he allowed Russia to take control in the middle of the park.
2. Aleksandr Samedov (Russia)
Samedov found himself on the ball in almost every Russian attack, and seemed to be at the heart of all of their dangerous moves despite not collecting a goal or an assist. His set piece delivery and vision were excellent, and he caused plenty of problems for Egypt with the ball at his feet.
3. Mohamed Salah (Egypt)
Salah’s return to the Egyptian team, and his importance to the Pharaohs meant that he was destined to be the centre of attention. He took a while to get himself into the game, but when he did it was clear that his blistering pace and eye for goal was still there. He came close on a number of occasions, and he deservedly finished with a goal to his name.
4. Aleksandr Golovin (Russia)
After his star turn in the tournament’s first match, Golovin could have been forgiven for a slight drop in standards. Against Egypt, there was no such drop. Once again, Russia’s star attacking midfielder was everywhere, harrying the Pharaohs when they had the ball and playing with great skill when he received it himself. A class act.
5. Marwan Mohsen (Egypt)
Mohsen deserves credit for putting in a very solid performance as Egypt’s main striker. He is far from the most talented member of their attack, but he made up for it with his determination to attack the ball and his fierce presence in aerial duels. He came up with some good moments, and made a few things happen.