During each matchday of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Sportsnet.ca’s World Cup Daily blog will recap the day’s events, and look ahead to the next day’s slate of games.
Here’s what happened on Thursday, in case you missed it…
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WHAT STOOD OUT
Hosts drop the hammer on opening day
Russia kicked off the World Cup as the lowest-ranked of the 32 teams in the tournament – at No. 70, three spots below Group A rivals Saudi Arabia.
There’s some promising attacking talent on this Russian team, most notably Aleksandr Golovin and Fyodor Smolov. But by and large, this a dull and uninspiring side, leading to genuine concerns ahead of the tournament that the hosts would bow out in the first round – a terrible turn of events that would put a damper on the proceedings.
But Russia momentarily allayed such fears with a comprehensive 5-0 win over the Saudis in Moscow, putting their best foot forward with the world watching. No host nation has ever lost its opening game at the World Cup (their collective record now 16 wins and six draws following Russia’s big win).
This was a must-win for Russia, who earned its first World Cup victory since 2002 and ended a seven-game winless run overall. They could ill afford to drop any points against the modest Saudis, especially with South American stalwarts Uruguay and a Mohamed Salah-led Egypt also awaiting them in Group A. This was a good first test for Russia, one they passed with flying colours. Expectations should be tempered, though, because it gets a lot tougher from here on out.
Super subs rule the day
A 12th minute goal by Yuri Gazinsky swung the momentum in Russia’s favour after a fervent start by both teams. But Russian hearts were in mouths after Alan Dzagoev pulled up lame with a hamstring injury and was forced to leave the game in the 24th minute, forcing the hosts to play the remainder of the contest without their top attacking player.
Step forward, Denis Cheryshev. He replaced Dzagoev and the Russians barely missed a beat the rest of the way. Cheryshev scored just before halftime with a composed finish from in close. His second of the day, an early goal of the tournament candidate, came at the end of regulation time.
Cheryshev wasn’t the only “super sub” for Russia. A mere 89 seconds after replacing Smolov, Artyom Dzyuba made it 3-0 for the hosts when he scored on a header off a cross supplied by Golovin.
Saudi Arabia was down 3-0, but Russia saw blood in the water late in regulation time. A long ball played forward eventually landed at the feet of Cheryshev, who unleashed an exquisite shot with the outside of his foot from just inside the penalty area that sailed past goalkeeper Abdullah Al Mayouf.
The Russian players being applauded off the pitch after the final whistle by the fans. It was a fantastic display by the host nation in the opening match of the competition, one worthy of praise from the appreciative crowd inside Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.
THE GAME WITHIN THE GAME
Saudi Arabia had a fair amount of possession and completed more passes than Russia through the opening 45 minutes. But the Russians were able to penetrate far more than the visitors, and made greater use of the ball, especially in the final third.
“I don’t even like to lose a game of ludo.” – Spanish defender Sergio Ramos, looking ahead to Friday’s game against Portugal.
— SimpsonsQOTD (@SimpsonsQOTD) June 14, 2018
SIX PACK OF STATS
• At 38 years and 335 days, defender Sergei Ignashevich is the oldest player to appear in a World Cup match for Russia/Soviet Union.
• Yuri Gazinskiy is the first player to score with the first shot on target at a World Cup tournament since Germany’s Philipp Lahm in 2006.
• Denis Cheryshev is the first ever substitute to score in the opening match of a World Cup tournament.
• Russia’s Artem Dzyuba scored 89 seconds after coming off the bench, the quickest goal by a substitute at the World Cup since Poland’s Marcin Zewlakow in 2002 (64 seconds).
• Russia has scored three or more goals in a World Cup match for the first time since beating Cameroon 6-1 in 1994.
• Russia recorded the second biggest victory by a host nation in its opening match in a World Cup since Italy’s 7-1 win over the United States in 1934.
Stats courtesy of Opta
1) Alexander Golovin, Russia: Served as Russia’s chief orchestrator, as he had a hand in setting up three goals. Also scored on a spectacular free kick in injury time to complete the rout.
2) Denis Cheryshev, Russia: The “Super Sub.” Russia didn’t slow down after losing Dzagoev to injury in the first half thanks to Cheryshev, who scored two goals on the day.
3) Yuri Gazinskiy, Russia: Scored the opening goal, connecting on a header off a great ball by Golovin played into the box.
LOOKING AHEAD TO FRIDAY
Group A: Egypt vs. Uruguay (8:00 a.m. ET) – Mohammed Salah is expected to play after injuring his shoulder in the UEFA Champions League final. That’s good news for Egypt as they need him to have any chance of advancing to the second round.
Group B: Morocco vs. Iran (11:00 a.m. ET) – Some pundits are picking Morocco to beat out Portugal for second place in Group B. If they’re going to do that, a win against Iran is an absolute must.
Group B: Spain vs. Portugal (2:00 p.m. ET) – One of the marquee clashes of the groups stage, pitting the reigning champions of Europe against a Spanish side still reeling from manager Julen Lopetegui being fired on Wednesday.
ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB
Miguel Delaney of The Independent breaks down the Spain-Lopetegui controversy.
Aidan Williams of These Football Times takes this thoughtful look back at Belgium’s run to the semifinals of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Adam Digby of TheSportsman offers this profile of Uruguay midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur, who could have a breakout tournament in Russia.