For all the talk about Russia potentially becoming the second host country to fail to reach the knockout round in World Cup history, the Sbornaya provided an emphatic counter with a 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia in Moscow on Thursday in the lid-lifter of the 32-team tournament.
Substitute Denis Cheryshev scored on either side of halftime, including one of what could prove to be two vital goals in second-half stoppage time as the sides still have to play group favorites Uruguay and Egypt in their remaining two matches. Iury Gazinsky, fellow substitute Artem Dzyuba and Aleksandr Golovin also scored goals for the host country, which maintained the unbeaten record of hosts in the opening match, and Golovin provided the assists on the goals by Gazinsky and Dzyuba.
Despite being the two lowest-ranked countries in the World Cup, the three-spot difference was more like a gulf than a gap between No. 67 Russia and No. 70 Saudi Arabia. While not much was expected of the Green Falcons, Russia’s listless build-up on the pitch prompted many concerns the host country would be easily outclassed.
Instead, Russia’s midfield pinned Saudi Arabia to the sidelines, allowing Juan Antonio Pizzi’s side few opportunities to press forward in open areas. Time and again, the Sbornaya caused turnovers and rolled through the midfield, pressing forward in waves against a shambolic Saudi backline that offered little resistance.
Gazinsky opened the scoring of the 2018 World Cup in the 12th minute with a well-placed header from six yards across the face of goal following a cross from the left by Golovin for his first international goal. The Green Falcons finally sorted themselves to a degree and came close to an equalizer on 20 minutes when Mohammad Al-Sahlawai’s header was deflected by defender Ilya Kupetov wide of the left post.
There would be more bad news for the hosts as midfielder Alan Dzagoev pulled up with a left hamstring injury and crumpled to the turf four minutes later. While he was able to walk off the pitch under his own power, it seems unlikely he will recover in time for Russia’s next match against Egypt on Tuesday.
Cheryshev doubled the Sbornaya’s lead in the 43rd minute, collecting a pass from Roman Zobnin in the penalty area and showing poise in letting a pair of defenders slide by before thumping a left-footed shot into the roof of the net from just outside the six-yard box.
Dzyuba, who had entered the game as a substitute moments earlier, made an instant impact in the 71st minute when he nodded home from six yards into the right corner to make it 3-0, fending off Saudi Arabia defender Osama Hawsawi to meet Golovin’s curling right-footed cross sent from just inside the penalty area.
Cheryshev added to the merriment with a sublime left-footed strike in the 91st minute, using the outside of his foot to slice the ball over keeper Abdullah Al-Mauaiouf. Golovin capped the festivities two minutes later, lashing a free kick from 25 yards inside the right post to Al-Mauaiouf’s near side.
Saudi Arabia failed to test Russia keeper Igor Akinfeev, who did not need to make a save in recording a clean sheet. The Sbornaya had more shots on target (7) than the Green Falcons had shots (6), and referee Nestor Pitana issued just two yellow cards, one to Golovin in the 88th minute for a clumsy challenge and one to Saudi Arabia’s Taisser Al-Jassam that led to Golovin’s goal on his free kick.
Pitana did not need to consult the video assistant referee during the match, emphatically denying a penalty claim to Russia in the first half after Hawasawi made a tackle on Golovin in what was the only potential point of contention in which VAR would have been needed.
Saudi Arabia’s winless spell in World Cup play reached 11 matches (0-2-9) since beating Belgium to close group play in the 1994 edition. The Green Falcons have absorbed at least one loss by three goals in each of their last four World Cup appearances and been outscored 34-5 during their winless stretch in football’s biggest tournament.
Russia moves onto St. Petersburg to face Egypt on Tuesday, while Saudi Arabia look to regroup against Group A favorites Uruguay on Wednesday at Rostov-on-Don.