In a group with South-American powerhouse, Uruguay, and a Mohammed Salah led Egypt, Russia were not expected to make much headway in their own backyard at this summer’s World Cup. Yet, as the tournament gets underway, it would seem the host nation may have been somewhat underrated.
High on pressure, low on confidence
Russia came into their opening game against Saudi Arabia with little to no confidence and a string of bad results at their back. Added to this, Stanislav Cherchesov’s side has the burden of being the host nation.
Saudi Arabia, however, boasted the joint (with Robert Lewandowski) top scorer in World Cup qualification – Mohammed Al-Sahlawi. With 16 goals in just 14 games, it seemed that they would be competing with the Midas touch of Mohammed Salah for second place in one of the tournament’s weaker groups (on paper, that is).
Yet, in some style, the hosts completed a convincing 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia. Goals from Denis Cheryshev (2), Artem Dzyuba, Aleksandr Golovin, and Yury Gazinsky sealed a fantastic start to the campaign for the host nation. It must not be overlooked that goal difference the first factor taken into account when points ties must be broken.
Golovin could be the difference
Time and again, we see underdog teams progress in tournaments under the form and fire of a young talent having a breakout competition. All eyes will be on 22-year-old Aleksandr Golovin who provided 2 assists and a phenomenal free-kick to kick-start his summer. Having already been linked to Manchester United and Arsenal in recent times, the versatile Russian midfielder was the clear star on the pitch in the opening game and could perhaps provide his nation with a route into the knockout rounds of the tournament.
While it was against Saudi Arabia rather than a bigger team, Russia showed some valuable tactical maneuvers that could provide a spark of hope for a memorable tournament. Almost Leicester 2015/16-like, Russia kept a stalwart defensive unit and allowed little creativity in their half of the pitch. They crowded out the Saudi Arabian players with effective pressing and seemed to win every long clearance and header. They showed effective conversion from sturdy defence to attack with talents like the aforementioned Golovin and Cheryshev.
A blessing in disguise
Tragedy struck with Alan Dzagoev’s sudden hamstring injury as the experienced hub of Russia’s midfield left the pitch for seemingly the rest of the World Cup. Yet all is not lost. With his departure, Golovin moved into the centre of the attacking midfield and became instantly effective with his range of passing and intelligent playmaking ability. Not only this, but Cheryshev filled the role left by Golovin and looked even more effective as an athlete and direct attacker. As soon as this tactical change was initiated, Russia looked far more effective and may continue to deploy this formation further in the competition.
With bright attacking talents, raw physical strength and a cohesive defensive block in place, Russia seem to have the tools to play any in their group to perhaps progress to a knockout stage of the competition. They have clearly effective substitutes, with Dzyuba coming on for a goal and assist and Cheryshev netting two.
On six occasions have host nations won the World Cup. While it may be a stretch too far to suggest that Russia could emulate this success, it would at least suggest that the support of your entire country is a tangible factor for success. The highly underestimated, bottom seeded nation of Russia have started the 2018 World Cup off with a bang and may yet give one or two fans a surprise, as has been done again and again in the past. Costa Rica in 2014, Ghana in 2010 the list goes on. Is the magic of sports biggest event upon Russia this year?