Friday 14 December 2018

Cheryshev feasts on 'shameful' Saudi outfit

Russia 5 Saudi Arabia 0

Russia’s Denis Cheryshev celebrates scoring their second goal. Photo: Reuters
Russia’s Denis Cheryshev celebrates scoring their second goal. Photo: Reuters

Sam Wallace

From somewhere in his statesman's repertoire, and with the eyes of the world upon him at the Luzhniki Stadium, Vladimir Putin found himself having to dredge up the expression that conveys sympathy - the alternative being much too impolite for his guest from Saudi Arabia.

In the VIP seats, the two of them were engaging in a spot of friendly diplomacy over the Fifa president Gianni Infantino, while on the pitch things were getting frankly very embarrassing for the man from Saudi Arabia.

Aleksandr Golovin of Russia scores his team's fifth goal past Abdullah Al Muaiouf of Saudi Arabia. Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Aleksandr Golovin of Russia scores his team's fifth goal past Abdullah Al Muaiouf of Saudi Arabia. Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Among the many roles His Excellency Crown Prince Mohammad Bin-Salman fulfils for his nation is that of minister of defence and he would be entitled to ask his Spanish coach Juan Antonio Pizzi why he elected to embark on this World Cup campaign without one of his own.

This turned into the host nation's perfect start to the World Cup, a first-half injury to Alan Dzagoev aside, when their hitherto misfiring side scored five against a Saudi team so hopelessly at sea that even the Russians ended up feeling sorry for them.

At first it seemed that the visitors had a team that was reasonable in possession but without a cutting edge. As time went on it was clear that they lacked a defence, a decent goalkeeper or any kind of robustness of character as things went from bad to worse.

It was a low-key start to the tournament in terms of the opening ceremony when the greatest offence spotted by the video assistant referees would have been the middle-finger Robbie Williams inexplicably flicked at a camera as he raced through his greatest hits.

Russia's midfielder Yury Zhirkov (L) vies with Saudi Arabia's defender Mohammed Al-Breik. Photo: Getty Images
Russia's midfielder Yury Zhirkov (L) vies with Saudi Arabia's defender Mohammed Al-Breik. Photo: Getty Images

There was little that spoke in particular of Russian culture until Putin stepped up to the microphone and welcomed the world to rapturous applause from the home fans.

Tempting

What followed was, all told, a match of low quality between one mediocre team and another that was so bad it was tempting to check Asian qualifying to try to figure how on earth they made it this far.

Saudi were poor, conceding two goals in injury-time at the end of the game, and the second post-match question to Pizzi was whether he was likely to be sacked before the next game against Uruguay.

It should be said that under great pressure, Russia played well, allowing their opponents to stroke the ball around pointlessly in midfield and then pounce on their many mistakes.

Saudi Arabia's midfielder Taisir Al-Jassim (L) and Russia's midfielder Alan Dzagoev compete for the ball. Photo; Getty Images
Saudi Arabia's midfielder Taisir Al-Jassim (L) and Russia's midfielder Alan Dzagoev compete for the ball. Photo; Getty Images

There were two goals from substitute Denis Cheryshev, a former Real Madrid midfielder, whose second, struck with the outside of his left foot was the moment of true quality.

Cheryshev had come on for Dzagoev, who pulled a hamstring in the 23rd minute.

"The next game (against Egypt) will be much more complex," said Russia manager Stanislas Cherchesov. "We don't know whether Mohamed Salah will play or not, and even with him they are a respectable side. But I am relaxed - why do I have to be stressed?"

It was certainly a good afternoon for the old Soviet Union goalkeeper and his celebrations on the touchline as the result was put beyond doubt suggested a man who has indeed been stressed in private.

Saudi Arabia's forward Mohammed Al-Sahlawi (L) and Russia's defender Sergey Ignashevich compete for the ball. Photo: Getty Images
Saudi Arabia's forward Mohammed Al-Sahlawi (L) and Russia's defender Sergey Ignashevich compete for the ball. Photo: Getty Images

It is probably not worth wondering what Putin would have made of a bad result, but the phone call Cherchesov received in the moments after the final whistle was understandably of a rather more positive tone.

"Shameful" was how crestfallen Pizzi described his team.

"The opposing team didn't really have to make a huge effort to win by a landslide," he said.

Born in Argentina, but a former Spanish international, he hinted at deeper problems with his players, who were paper thin in defence when Russia counter-attacked.

Pizzi simply said that he had done his best and "given my all". "There are certain situations I can't control," he added bleakly.

His team finished with 62pc possession and no shots on goal, conceding the first when midfielder Iury Gazinsky headed the ball in at the back post.

Cheryshev got the second before half-time, sending two Saudi defenders out for refreshments with a dummy and finishing well.

After the break, Dzyuba headed in the third, Cheryshev buried the fourth and Golovin added the fifth from a free-kick.

With five minutes to go Pizzi substituted striker Mohammed Al Sahlawi, who has 28 goals in 40 caps, albeit eight of them in two matches against East Timor.

Al Sahlawi trained with Manchester United this season proving that it really is remarkable what privileges a rich nation can arrange for its footballers.

But when it comes down to the real business of a World Cup finals there is simply no hiding place for the substandard. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

 

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