First Touch

Hosts Russia Serve Up A Thrashing

World Cup 2018 is under way and we must give thanks to Hosts Russia and the Russian authorities for the comparatively restrained nature of the opening ceremony which, mercifully, contained no more than the statutory minimum of interpretive dance required at such events. 

By Dave Bowler

Equally, for those of us veterans who spent years watching the Cold War era May Day celebrations outside the Kremlin on TV, awestruck by the synchronised might of the Soviet war machine, seeing a parade of young ladies, cunningly disguised as mushrooms, representing each of the 32 nations was a welcome relief.

Having Robbie Williams prancing around the Moscow stage, singing about angels, the existence of which, of course, was not countenanced in the old communist days, was final proof that Vlad the Inhaler, Comrade Putin, has embraced capitalism and consigned the old ways to the dustbin of history.

What Lenin would have thought of the putsch aimed at ambush marketing rather than the aristocracy isn’t hard to imagine, whilst Leonid Brezhnev will have been rotating in his grave, horrified by the lack of tanks marching down the left wing.

dave bowler illustration

Russia Win Opener

Once the game commenced, Russia has no need of the military hardware in destroying the limp defensive shield employed by the Saudis. The host nation’s form going into the tournament has been largely awful and there were fears the occasion might be too much for them, getting the tournament off on the wrong foot with an insipid display.

There need have been no such fears for, from the outset, against a Saudi side with seemingly no tactical acumen of any kind, they simply tore things up. The plan was beguilingly simple – they let their opponents have the ball, the Saudis obligingly poured forward, the Russians pinched the ball off them and, quicker than you could say “mutually assured destruction”, they were in on goal.

Once they got in front with a neatly placed Gazinskiy header after 12 minutes, there was only ever going to be one winner. The Russians quickly summed up the weakness of the Saudis, grew in confidence, played neatly and, gradually, rose to the occasion. A lovely bit of skill from Cheryshev enabled him to make it 2-0 just before the break despite a poor pass seemingly costing him the chance and from there, it was bread and circuses, a trick the Russians have co-opted from the absent Romans.

The arrival of the giant Dzyuba up front in the second half was quickly rewarded with a thumping header for 3-0, and the home side sealed the win with two injury time goals, the first an absolute screamer with the outside of the left boot by Cheryshev. If he can drag his side through the group, he could emerge as not just a national hero, but a star of the tournament.

Tough Road Ahead

Russia will celebrate the win, but they’ll quickly sober up tomorrow when they realise tougher tests await in Egypt and Uruguay. That said, rising self belief gives them real hope of a place in the knockout stages, something which looked highly unlikely just 24 hours ago.

The performance of the Saudis meanwhile should be sobering for FIFA. For after basking in awarding the 2026 jamboree to the USA, Canada and Mexico, making that World Cup a 48 team contest now looks even more ridiculous than it already did. Do we really need a competition with 16 worse teams than Saudi Arabia in it?

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