ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — With a slick one-two and a beautiful curling shot, Aleksei Miranchuk finally gave Russia something to smile about at the European Championship.
The left-footed playmaker produced the one moment of class in a chaotic game Wednesday to give Russia a 1-0 win over Finland and its first points at Euro 2020.
“I have to give credit, it was beautiful finishing.” Finland coach Markku Kanerva said of the goal in first-half stoppage time.
The pessimism that followed the Russians’ 3-0 loss to Belgium in their opening Group B game was replaced by loud cheers and jubilant chants of “ROSS-I-YA” at the final whistle at Saint Petersburg Stadium.
A loss would have left Russia with an extremely difficult task to qualify for the knockout stage, given its last match is a trip to Denmark on Monday.
Now Russia is tied on points with the Finns, who missed a chance to reach the last 16 with a game to spare with a second straight victory in their first major tournament. Their first victory was 1-0 over Denmark in a match marked by Christian Eriksen’s collapse.
It came as no surprise that Artem Dzyuba was involved in Miranchuk’s superbly taken goal, which wasn’t in keeping with the overall standard of an often scrappy game.
The big centre forward was the focal point of all Russia’s attacks, though this one involved him using good footwork instead of his renowned aerial prowess.
Miranchuk collected the ball on the edge of the area and slipped a short ball forward to Dzyuba, who laid it off deftly back to the playmaker. Miranchuk took one touch to cut inside Finland defender Daniel O’Shaughnessy and, with barely any back-lift, floated his shot beyond goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky and into the top corner.
While Russia relied on Dzyuba and Aleksandr Golovin for goals at the World Cup on home soil in 2018, when the team defied expectations to reach the quarterfinals, Miranchuk could have a bigger say at Euro 2020.
He is coming off a solid first season at Italian team Atalanta, in which he scored in his first appearance in the Champions League and also in his first appearance in Serie A against eventual champion Inter Milan.
Along with Golovin, Miranchuk was the standout player against Finland and appears to have cemented his starting place, having previously been used mostly as a substitute by Russia coach Stanislas Cherchesov.
“I welcomed his move to Italy,” Cherchesov said. “He has always been a good footballer, but he needed to develop more as a person and get out of his comfort zone.
“At Atalanta, he has had to prove himself in one of the best leagues in the world.”
Kanerva had expressed his concern ahead of the game that his players might still be traumatized by the incident involving Eriksen on Saturday. They wore T-shirts during the warmup with words “Get well Christian!” on the front, an idea devised by captain Tim Sparv.
“My sense was that the players were OK,” said Kanerva, a former primary school teacher. “In my mind, that tells a story about the nature of the team. The players gave everything, but on the other hand some things are bigger than football.”
Indeed, Finland _ cheered on by about 4,000 fans who made the 200-kilometer (125-mile) journey from the Finnish border to St. Petersburg — was the better team in the early stages and had a headed goal by Joel Pohjanpalo ruled out by video review in the third minute.
Pohjanpalo, Finland’s scorer against Denmark, was also played through on goal later in the first half but had two shots blocked by last-ditch challenges.
“How the game went, I think we deserved a point,” Kanerva said.
Russia was humiliated at times by Belgium in its opening group game but found Finland’s midfield — missing Sparv while he recovers from a knee injury — much easier to cut through, especially when Miranchuk dropped deep to link up play.
The negative for Russia was the sight of defender Mario Fernandes getting carried off on a stretcher in the 26th minute after landing on his back in a fall.
The Brazilian-born right back was taken to the hospital with a suspected spinal problem but no damage to his vertebrae was found. He will travel with the team to Moscow ahead of the Denmark game and be observed by medical staff.