Russia is a cold and unforgiving place, especially for those not used to it. The Saudi Arabian players got to know that first-hand as they were swept aside at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow with the Russians pumping in five goals. The high-scoring match certainly lived beyond its billing, which, despite being the inaugural match of the FIFA World Cup 2018, was between two low-placed teams.
The 81,000-strong Luzhniki Stadium was lit up to welcome the tournament to Russia, and after half-hour long ceremony, followed by a speech by President Vladimir Putin, the ball was rolled and the match began.
Just 11 minutes later, watching from the stands, Russian President Vladimir Putin, with a broad smile, shook hands with Saudi Arabia's crown prince Muhammad bin Salman after his country took 1-0 advantage in the 11th minute in the World Cup opener. Putin had every reason to smile with his team in absolute command. The first goal was just a proof.
Russia lined up in a 4-2-3-1 as compared to Saudi Arabia's rather defensive 4-1-4-1. That's how the game proceeded too, with Russia attacking from the word go and Saudi Arabia left to pinging ball out of their end. In the 11th minute though, Saudi Arabia's resistance broke when Yuri Zhirkov combined with Aleksandr Golovin, who drew a curve from the left side of the pitch. Yuri Gazinskiy headed the inviting cross into the net and past the goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf, scoring the first goal of the tournament. However, Saudi Arabia's left-back Yasser Al-Shahrani, who was marking Gazinskiy, slipped, giving the Russian the advantage.
The home team continued to dominate the play. However, 24th minute -- Alan Dzagoev, Russia's free-moving midfielder limped off after a hamstring injury. For a man of his talent, Dzagoev, who also missed the FIFA World Cup 2014 and Euro 2016 due to injuries, the joy of performing at the biggest stage was short-lived. With his main orchestrator out, Russia disintegrated, or at least, their play became more diffused with mispasses abound, giving Saudi Arabia more time to find their rhythm.
Denis Cheryshev, who plays for Spanish club Villareal, replaced Dzagoev. Within 17 minutes of his introduction, he doubled Russia's lead with his first international goal. The attack began down the right side which later moved to the left flank. Two Saudi Arabia defenders desperately flung and slid themselves towards Cheryshev, who was all alone. The former Real Madrid player pulled off a skill to take out both defenders at once before firing the ball into the near post to double his side's advantage.
The game resumed after the half-time break and Saudi Arabia decided to come out of its shell. They were tidy in possession too in bits and patches but could never make it count in the final third. In the 69th minute, Artem Dzyuba was substituted in for Fyodor Smolov. Within a minute, the 6ft 5in tall striker touched the ball for the first time, and it was a goal. Highly rated youngster Aleksandr Golovin floated a cross from the right flank and Dzyuba, after getting away from the Saudi defence, headed the ball past Al-Mayoof.
Saudi Arabia had reached a point of no return but things were going to be worse for them as Russia launched a flutter of attacks late in the match. Of special note was Cheryshev's 91st-minute stunner, which the winger scored from the left side with the outside of his boot. The ball flew to the top corner and Cheryshev completed a brilliant performance in the match in which he came as a substitute.
After assisting Dzyuba's goal for Russia's third, Golovin was brought down just outside the box in the 94th minute. The winger himself took the free-kick, curling a fine strike just inside the right side of the net.
Russia have made a perfect start to the tournament while Saudi Arabia will have their task cut out to even have a chance of advancing from the group stage.
-- Russia have recorded the second biggest victory by a host nation in their opening match in the WorldCup history, after Italy vs USA in 1934 (7-1).
-- Russia have scored 3+ goals in a World Cup game for the first time since beating Cameroon 6-1 in 1994
-- Artem Dzyuba scored just 89 seconds after coming off the bench, the quickest sub goal at a World Cup tournament since Marcin Zewlakow for Poland vs USA in 2002.
-- Iury Gazinsky header is first goal of Russia 2018
-- Denis Cheryshev is the first ever substitute to score in the opening match of a World Cup tournament.
Russia: Igor Akinfeev (GK) (c), Mario Fernandes, Ilya Kutepov, Sergey Ignashevich, Iury Gazinsky, Alan Dzagoev, Roman Zobnin, Aleksandr Golovin, Yury Zhirkov, Alexander Samedov, Fedor Smolov
Saudi Arabia: Abdullah Almauaiouf (GK), Osama Hawsawi (C), Omar Hawsawi, Mohammed Alburayk, Yasser Alshahrani, Salman Alfaraj, Yahia Alshehri, Abdullah Otayf, Taiseer Aljassam, Salem Aldawsari, Mohammed Alsahlawi
After Paul the Octopus, Fred the Ferret, Soothsayer Hog, Citta the Elephant, Flopsy the Kangaroo and Madame Shiva the Guinea Pig, now we can add Achilles the Cat to the list. "Achilles," the resident mouse-catcher at St. Petersburg's Hermitage museum, is putting his faith in Russia.
This is where the bell dongs! When clocks strike 8:30 pm in India, more than 5000 kms away, the ball will be rolled at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, and it will set in motion the 2018 edition of FIFA World Cup -- one of the biggest sporting events in the world. The hosts, Russia will take on Saudi Arabia which looks, on paper, like a match that lacks glamour but will definitely be high on energy. Russia are lowest-ranked among the 32 teams participating in the tournament as they sit 70th in the FIFA rankings while Saudi Arabia are three spots above, in 67th.
This is Saudi Arabia's first appearance in World Cup finals since 2006 after failing to qualify for the 2010 and 2014 editions of the tournament. However, it is their current form that Saudi Arabia should be worried about. They have failed to win a single game at the World Cup after beating Belgium in 1994. The 2018 FIFA World Cup is a chance to set the record right.
On the other hand, Russia will have home advantage and the support will be drowning. But Russia will need to punch above their weight if it wants to avoid the same fate as South Africa who were sent packing 11 days into the 2010 tournament despite being the hosts.
Saudi Arabia 23-man squad:
Goalkeepers: Assaf Al-Qarny, Mohammed Al-Owais, Yasser Al-Musailem, Abdullah Al-Mayuf.
Defenders: Mansoor Al-Harbi, Yasser Al-Shahrani, Mohammed Al-Breik, Saeed Al-Mowalad, Motaz Hawsawi, Osama Hawsawi, Omar Hawsawi, Mohammed Jahfali, Ali Al-Bulaihi.
Midfielders: Abdullah Al-Khaibari, Abdulmalek Al-Khaibri, Abdullah Otayf, Taiseer Al-Jassim, Houssain Al-Mogahwi, Salman Al-Faraj, Nawaf Al-Abed, Mohamed Kanno, Hattan Bahebri, Mohammed Al-Kwikbi, Salem Al-Dawsari, Yehya Al-Shehri.
Forwards: Fahad Al-Muwallad, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi, Muhannad Assiri.
Formation and tactics: Juan Antonio Pizzi looks to line-up his team in a 4-3-3 with two midfielders performing defensive duties. Saudi Arabia look to absorb pressure then hit on counter with long passes to the wide forwards. Attacks will come from the left flank.
Players to watch out for: Mohammad Al-Sahlawi, who scored joint max number of goals (16), and winger Salem Al-Dawsari, who plays for Spanish club Villarreal.
Trivia: Of players attempting 1000+ passes in the Saudi Arabian Pro League in 2017-18, Abdullah Ateef registered the highest passing accuracy (90.3%).
Russia 23-man squad
Goalkeepers: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), Vladimir Gabulov (Club Brugge), Soslan Dzhanaev (Rubin Kazan), Andrey Lunev (Zenit St Petersburg);
Defenders: Vladimir Granat, Ruslan Kambolov, Fedor Kudryashov (all Rubin Kazan), Ilya Kutepov (Spartak Moscow), Roman Neustadter (Fenerbahce), Konstantin Rausch (Dynamo Moscow), Andrey Semenov (Akhmat Grozny), Igor Smolnikov (Zenit St Petersburg), Mario Fernandes (CSKA Moscow);
Midfielders: Yuri Gazinskiy (Krasnodar), Alexsandr Golovin, Alan Dzagoev (both CSKA Moscow), Aleksandr Erokhin, Yuri Zhirkov, Daler Kuzyaev (all Zenit St Petersburg), Roman Zobnin, Alexsandr Samedov (both Spartak Moscow), Anton Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), Aleksandr Tashaev (Dynamo Moscow), Denis Cheryshev (Villarreal);
Forwards: Artem Dzyuba (Arsenal Tula), Aleksey Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), Fedor Smolov (Krasnodar), Fedor Chalov (CSKA Moscow).
Formation and tactics: Russia play with three at the back, the wing backs pushed high and one screening midfielder drop[pong off to provide cover as the centre backs split to cover the wide spaces. Alan Dzagoev plays off in a free attacking role and provides a second goal-scoring threat. However, if he is restrained, it's easier to stifle Russia. That is when Russia attack down the wide spaces for the attack.
Key players: CSKA Moscow's midfielder Alan Dzagoev and highly-rated young prospect Aleksandr Golovin.
Trivia: Vladimir Gabulov & Denis Cheryshev could become the first players to appear for Russia at a World Cup whilst playing in a foreign league since 2002. At the 2014 World Cup, Russia's squad was made up entirely of players from their own top-flight (Russian Premier League).