The atmosphere in Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday was bizarre even before the first kick of the World Cup, as millions tuned in to the sight of washed British pop star Robbie Williams singing and flipping off the camera—and that was before Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a welcome speech with the charisma of stale kulich. It’s hard to think of a more appropriate welcome to Russia, first-time World Cup hosts that aren’t only morally questionable in the sporting world (among … other international arenas), but also are fielding a team that’s ranked as one of the worst of the tournament.
So despite the [clears throat] good fortune of landing in the easiest group in decades, pre-tournament chatter suggested that Russia was far from a lock to make it to the knockout round. In other words, even facing its easiest opponent in the group, Saudi Arabia, in Thursday’s opening match was considered a stern test—but you wouldn’t know it from the 5-0 thrashing the hosts delivered to the Green Falcons.
Granted, it didn’t look anything like a barnburner at the start—the constant giveaways in key areas of the pitch by both teams, seemingly unable to weight their passes or handle the ball with a modicum of control, was taking me back to middle school. (Perhaps it was opening-match jitters; perhaps there is inherent tension in playing in front of a de facto dictator.) It was a small mercy when Yury Gazinsky headed in the opener after 12 sloppy minutes; I was even willing to overlook the fact Gazinsky might’ve pushed off the Saudi defender and could’ve been called for a foul.
The goal also, blessedly, provided us with the first meme of the tournament: Putin shrugging off Gazinsky’s goal in front of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Dubious foreign leaders with a plethora of human rights abuses, they’re just like us!
While the Russians nabbed a second goal just before halftime from Denis Cheryshev, who came on in the 24th minute for an injured Alan Dzagoev, it wasn’t until the second half that the game got out of hand. A second goal from Cheryshev—a beautiful swish off his favored left foot that found the top right corner—plus goals from fellow sub Artem Dzyuba and midfield dynamo Aleksandr Golovin, capped off the massacre. It was the second-largest victory by a host nation in its opening game, and the most lopsided one in nearly a century. Does this make Russia a formidable team, one that was unfairly counted out before the first whistle?
It’s hard to look at Russia’s dominance without also considering the abysmal play from Saudi Arabia. The team had three coaching changes during its World Cup qualifying run—they’re now coached by Juan Antonio Pizzi, who flamed out with Chile. Pizzi prefers his team to play possession-heavy football, a style which, when operated by the likes of Spain and Germany, is aesthetically pleasing and ruthlessly efficient. But there’s a dearth of talent in the Saudi midfield—tiki-crapa send tweet—and so despite having 61 percent possession and completing far more passes than the Russians, it was all for naught. The Saudis didn’t even manage a single shot on target. The expected goals map for both teams is the lopsided nature of the match in miniature.
xG map for Russia - KSA. On the one hand, it's true you usually don't finish all of your clear chances in front of goal. On the other hand, woof the model doesn't know how bad KSA's defense and keeper are. pic.twitter.com/zI5gU8xcSx— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) June 14, 2018
Credit to Russia, who accrued most of their opportunities through counter-attacking and the swole heads of physically imposing players like Gazinsky and Dzyuba. (Watching the 6-foot-5 Dzyuba line up against the Saudi defensive line was a lot like watching this giant Canadian kid play basketball against normal-sized kids.) The biggest question mark for Russia, however, remains its injury-plagued defense: It’s hard to get a read on its effectiveness—or how 32-year-old keeper Igor Akinfeev might fare—when the team’s opponents on Thursday barely offered any resistance on either side of the pitch.
Still, the blowout win might be enough for the Russians to sneak out of their group. The goal differential is now largely in their favor. Uruguay is a near-lock to win the group, so it’s Egypt and Russia that are most likely to vie for that second spot. Even if Russia only manages to muster a draw against the Egyptians and lose to Uruguay, it could be enough to make it to the round of 16—barring Mo Salah going supernova.
It won’t be pretty—heck, despite the surplus of goals, most of this game was an endurance test. But the Russians aren’t going to care, because getting out of Group A will be a victory in and of itself. If they make it any further, I’m going to start shrugging, too.