Rampant Russia put Putin in dreamland
World Cup hosts Russia got off to a dream start on opening night by thrashing Saudi Arabia 5-0 in Moscow.
This was everything Vladimir Putin could have dreamed of.
If Putin required vindication – and quite frankly he doesn’t, not many question the Russian president – for spending more than £8bn on bringing the World Cup to a country still stricken by widespread poverty, he would point to the events at the Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday afternoon.
The revamped bowl on the banks of the River Moskva rocked, initially to the songs of a British pop star, and then to the cheers of the Russian public as their heroes swept aside the limp challenge of Saudi Arabia, cruising to a 5-0 win in the tournament opener.
Putin’s decision to spend such vast amounts on the World Cup was dismissed by some as a vanity project but, for him, it represented a chance to showcase the ‘new’ Russia to the west.
A key part of that surrounded changing the perception of the average Russian, attempting to convince people they are moulded from the same Russian rock as him, a bare-chested, horse-riding tough guy that wouldn’t look out of place in a spaghetti western.
The theory was always questionable, especially when it seemed there was a realistic chance it would flounder in an area over which Putin has little control: the men on the pitch.
Russia came into this game without a win in seven, their national media predicting humiliation and satirists wading in on a daily basis.
Putin need not have worried, for those in red did everything asked of them and more. Not even Putin himself, watching on from the stands, could have imagined doing a better job.
The detractors will swiftly point to the quality of the opposition and they would be right to, for Saudi Arabia were terrible. Having qualified just behind Japan and ahead of Australia in the Asian confederation, they arrived with high hopes of plotting a route through Group A – arguably the weakest – that also contains Egypt and Uruguay.
And yet they failed dismally to pose any kind of threat. Juan Antonio Pizzi’s possession-based gameplan may have worked when taking Chile to the 2016 Copa America title but the Saudis don’t have an Alexis Sanchez in their squad, nor an Arturo Vidal.
Time and again they gave the ball away in dangerous areas but credit Russia for having the quality to punish them.
Yuri Gazinsky grabbed the opener – and sent the Luzhniki into raptures – after 12 minutes, nodding in Aleksandr Golovin’s left-wing cross and substitute Denis Cheryshev cleverly conjured up a second just before the break.
When Artem Dzyuba headed in a third a minute after his introduction, television cameras caught Putin clapping and delivering a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders, as if to say: “This was what I had in mind.”
And yet there was more to come as Cheryshev capped a stunning personal display by curling the ball into the top corner with the outside of his left foot in injury time before Golovin added a fifth with a free-kick.
While Putin will garner much of the attention, spare a thought for Russia boss Stanislav Cherchesov.
Here was a man under intense pressure – not least from the Kremlin – while all around him took cheap shots.
His team have been questioned by every Russian from St Petersburg to Vladivostok and yet they delivered when it mattered. On the sidelines, Cherchesov beamed. Russia beamed.
For both him and Putin, opening night could not have gone any better.