President Vladimir Putin was spotted holding a priceless smile as hosts Russia eased past Saudi Arabia in the opening game of the 2018 World Cup.
It only took eleven minutes for the first goal of the tournament to be scored, as Yury Gazinsky headed home his first international goal from a Aleksandr Golovin in-swinging cross, before substitute Denis Cheryshev evaded several half-hearted attempts of tackling him, and smashed home close to half-time.
A largely partisan crowd of just over 78,000 at the Luzhniki Stadium calmed after the second goal, with the Russians never really in doubt of three points.
Despite the slowing of the tempo, substitute Artem Dyzuba of Zenit St. Petersburg gave Russia a third goal to put Stanislav Cherchesov’s team in dreamland on matchday one.
As the match looked to be fizzling out, Russia added two goals in quick fire, both of spectacular quality.
The first was smashed home by Villarreal winger Denis Cheryshev, who celebrated his second of the afternoon. Then with virtually the last kick of the game, man-of-the-match Alexsandr Golovin curled a free-kick around the wall, leaving the goalkeeper with no chance.
Russia may have been the lowest ranked World Cup side in history, sitting at no.70 in FIFA’s seedings, but the hosts totally outclassed their Asian rivals from start to finish.
Russian president Putin addressed the crowd pre-match, and told us that Russians love football. This was undeniable, as the crowd celebrated in style every goal.
The Saudis looked good in possession in the middle of the pitch, playing it about in style, however as soon as they entered the attacking third, the Green Falcons panicked and little was seen of striker Mohammed Al-Sahlawi, who was a scoring sensation in qualifying.
With this easy win, the hosts have given themselves a massive chance of reaching their first World Cup knockout game since the demise of the Soviet Union.
Despite the easy-on-the-eye, impressive attacking display from Cherchesov’s side, there was nobody of the calibre of Luis Suarez or Mohamed Salah, so the ageing and slow Russian back line can expect a much rougher ride in the next two games.
But, you can only beat what is in front of you. On a night where Russia were tipped by many to falter against a poor Saudi Arabia, they answered all questions and got their World Cup campaign up and running in emphatic fashion.
Whilst Denis Cheryshev was in top goalscoring form, Aleksandr Golovin of CSKA Moscow was the star of the show.
With one goal, two assists and 71% pass accuracy, the 22-year-old was the player who many, including us in our Group A preview, predicted as the man to carry a nation’s hopes on his shoulders.
We were not wrong. Courted by Arsenal, Juventus and Manchester United for the past few months, Aleksandr Golovin put in a performance that justified his worldwide attention.
Starting the game in an unfamiliar left-wing role, Golovin drifted off the flank supporting the attackers in the attacking phase. It was this cutting in that led to the first goal, where he played a peach of a ball on a plate for Yury Gazinsky.
When Alan Dzagoev went off injured, Russia collectively breathed a disappointed sigh. However, it proved to be a blessing in disguise. Golovin moved centrally and from this point on, dictated the game.
Hold up play and a clever eye for a pass led to Cheryshev’s first goal, with a pre-assist, whilst tenacious play helped Russia re-find a tempo in a game that could have fizzled out after the second goal went in.
It wasn’t just his on the ball play that took the eye, Golovin managed four tackles and five interceptions, proving the CSKA midfielder has a spectacular work rate off the ball, which is important in international football, and will be vital to stop teams like Uruguay playing out from the back.
Golovin ended his night by getting a deserved goal from a brilliant free-kick, bent into the top corner, around the wall. Questions were asked of the Saudi goalkeeper, however the dip imposed on the ball gave him little chance.
A marvellous outing for Golovin, which can’t have done any harm to CSKA Moscow in terms of a potential bargaining tool if big clubs do indeed come knocking.
Before the Argentine referee’s whistle had even been blown to start proceedings on the pitch, the World Cup kicked off in style.
It wasn’t quite the Shakira light show of South Africa 2010 or the samba carnival of Brazil 2014, but the Russian’s put on their own show for the watching world.
Strangely enough, it was ex-Take That singer Robbie Williams who took centre stage, but it seemed to be a massive hit in Moscow, as fans from both Russia and Saudi Arabia alike joined in with songs.
Williams was joined by Kazan-born singer Aida Garifullina, with the pair signing off with a duet of the former’s 1997 single, Angels.
The 44-year-old ex-majority shareholder of League Two side Port Vale performed a number of his past singles, from Let Me Entertain You to Rock DJ.
As Williams was performing with Garifullina, Brazilian legend Ronaldo – nicknamed El Fenomeno – also emerged with a young mascot who was given the privilege of taking the first kick on the Luzhniki Stadium pitch.
After the ceremony had finished, the hosts’ president Putin gave a short speech to supporters in the stadium and across the world, welcoming them all to Russia for what is anticipated to be a football frenzy lasting over four weeks.
And if the action we saw today is anything to go by, it’s set to be a super-summer goalfest.