Surprise! Russia show up for their own World Cup Party
This World Cup hasn’t disappointed. Notable highlights thus far include the introduction of VAR, Spain and Portugal’s thrilling 3-3 draw, Argentina’s near capitulation, and Germany surrendering their crown before the knockout stage. If that isn’t enough, England offer promising signs.
Not lost in all the controversy, excitement, angst and jubilation, one nation is delivering beyond expectations more than any other. The hosts, Russia.
Five sides came close to topping the Russians as group stage overachievers. Iran performed valiantly against two footballing superpowers. Team Melli produced a strong defensive effort throughout to concede only twice in three games. Had Mehdi Taremi’s 94th-minute shot against Portugal found the net’s right side, they would have, perhaps deservedly, reached the last 16. In Group F, Sweden and Mexico progressed on six points apiece. El Tri stunned the Germans 1-0 in their opening match. Croatia also thrived. Vatreni were one of only three teams to earn maximum points, including a convincing 3-0 victory over Argentina. Japan came through a tough section, too.
Despite the five contenders’ feats, there’s at least one reason each side didn’t equal Russia’s achievement. Iran failed to qualify. Neither Sweden nor Mexico, world ranked 24th and 15th respectively, has performed way above what’s expected. Similar applies to Croatia, a nation judged 20th best on the planet, possessing several renowned talents. Japan, meanwhile, although inspiring, won just one game.
Russia opened the World Cup against Saudi Arabia 15 days ago. The anticipation was high inside Moscow’s fully packed Luzhniki Stadium, with 78,011 in attendance. Yury Gazinsky’s 12th-minute header soon eased any tension. Substitute Denis Cheryshev came on to smash in the second shortly before half-time. The Green Falcons then withered away. Targetman Artem Dzyuba took full advantage. Still not content, the Sbornyna adder further gloss in added time. Playmaker Aleksandr Golovin expertly dispatched a free-kick before Cheryshev’s immaculate skill turned the scoreboard 5-0.
Next up, Russia faced the returning Mohamed Salah’s Egypt. They showed no signs of feeling daunted. The host nation ended the Pharaohs’ dreams within 15 second-half minutes. Ahmed Fathy’s own goal followed by efforts from Cheryshev and Dzyuba ensured the Russians a last 16 spot. Not even suffering a 3-0 defeat to Uruguay in their last group game could dampen spirits.
Stanislav Cherchesov’s men deserve recognition. They entered the competition ranked 70th, the lowest position of all 32 teams. To put that into perspective, FIFA has Cape Verde Islands five places higher. Panama, having lost every contest in this tournament, conceding 11 times, sit 55th on the rankings.
Furthermore, the hosts face immense pressure. President Vladimir Putin was present during the opening encounter, making an impassioned speech prior to kickoff. Russia’s comfortable victory over Saudi Arabia warrants more credit. Uruguay, Group A’s most formidable outfit, only managed to hit one past the Green Falcons. Egypt, meanwhile, highly-fancied to challenge for qualification, fell 2-1 at the Arabs’ feet.
Setting up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Cherchesov has a good blend of experience and guile. What the squad lacks in pace is more than made up for with toughness.
In goal, Igor Akinfeev played all three group games. The Russia captain not only provides a calm presence, he’s developed leadership skills in earning 109 international caps. Protecting the goalkeeper, centre-backs Sergei Ignashevich and Ilya Kutepov have also both featured every minute. The former, at 38, is Sbornaya’s oldest ever World Cup player. Yuri Zhirkov adds further knowledge at left-back. The 34-year-old showed his capability to balance defence with attack during the first two matches. As did opposite full-back Mario Fernandes.
Gazinsky and Roman Zobnin have been ever-present in the Russian midfield. The pair combine effectively, allowing the players with more quality to shine. One such talent is Golovin. Arguably his country’s most important weapon, the 22-year-old is deadly when given time to weigh up a pass. He’ll be raring to go after sitting out against La Celeste.
Having started each game, Aleksandr Samedov commands the right-mid berth. Russia’s calibre increases when attacking from the left. Alan Dzagoev’s competition lasted only 24 minutes. His replacement, Cheryshev, has since proven the team’s brightest spark. The Villarreal winger is the tournament’s joint-third top goalscorer with three strikes. His relentless energy, as well as fine technique, are real assets.
Up top, Fyodor Smolov began the opening match. However, his lacklustre performance allowed Dzyuba a way in. The 6’5’’ striker has risen to the occasion. Having earned Cherchesov’s trust, he’s almost certain to continue as the lone frontman.
Russia will meet Spain in Sunday afternoon’s last 16 encounter. La Roja’s standard has dropped slightly since becoming 2010 world champions. They struggled to break down Iran, scoring a sole goal in the 54th minute. The hosts must take note to have any chance of causing an upset. Frustrating Fernando Hierro’s side while looking to hit on the counter could bring about success.
Spain proved susceptible to Portugal two weeks ago, with Cristiano Ronaldo bagging a hat-trick. Although Sbornaya’s attack has no such superstar, Golovin’s skill set, Cheryshev’s directness and Dzyuba’s physical presence can all disrupt the Spanish backline.
The Soviet Union reached four World Cup quarter-finals or better between 1958-70. As Russia, the nation had previously never progressed beyond the group stage. The current squad has ended that 24-year wait. Cherchesov’s charges must now give everything in order to prolong their party.