Denis Cheryshev seized the moment in spectacular fashion as a first-half substitute for Russia. (AP: Matthias Schrader)
Denis Cheryshev lit up the World Cup with a brace of out-of-this-world goals, with his technique and elan sweeping away the severe doubts surrounding the Russian team at the 2018 tournament.
Clouds of negativity have surrounded the World Cup hosts’ team in the lead-up to FIFA’s showpiece event, with various pundits doubting Russia’s ability to make it beyond the group stage, despite a manageable group.
Indeed, while Russia does produce technically adept players, their reluctance to play football outside of their home country elsewhere in Europe has seen the team become something of an insular entity in the world game.
SBS tweets What a goal by Denis Cheryshev! 2-0 Russia! Sublime touch before the finish. #RUSKSA #WorldCup #SBSTheWorldGame
But those naysayers have at least temporarily been shut up thanks to a vibrant showing against a very accommodating Saudi defence, in a scintillating 5-0 hammering to kick the tournament off.
Cheryshev lived up to his name and put the cherry on a delicious Russian cake more than once, with his first goal an example of exquisite close technique, and his second a case of sheer audacity.
Saudi players were left on their backsides as Cheryshev showed a touch even Lionel Messi would be proud of. (AP: Victor Caivano)
Russia started positively and was rewarded with Yuri Gazinskiy’s finish in the 12th minute, but despair seemed to set about the Moscow stadium as star man Alan Dzagoev went down with a hamstring injury just 24 minutes in, which could rule him out for the rest of the World Cup campaign.
But on as a Dzagoev’s replacement, Cheryshev created history as the first ever substitute to score in the opening match of a World Cup.
Practically begging for the pass while completely free on the left in a Russian break, Cheryshev skipped past a sliding Saudi challenge with the deftest of touches before hammering the ball home on his left foot.
Denis Cheryshev was exemplary for Russia as a late goal rush saw Saudi Arabia wilt at the Luzhniki. (AP: Pavel Golovkin)
It was an immaculate touch with a finish to match to light up the World Cup — both for the pessimists in Russian quarters and also for those begrudging Russia a seemingly soft group, with the fixture hardly the most thrilling on paper for an opening day, given the fare on offer for day two. Spain v Portugal, anyone?
Now Mexican waves were rolling around the Luzhniki stands, and substitute magic rubbed off again for Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov, as another replacement — Artem Dzyuba — stole in to head home the host nation’s third goal barely 90 seconds after coming on to the pitch.
Liked his first goal? Get ready for Cheryshev’s second
Denis Cheryshev’s second goal triggered a late goal rush against Saudi Arabia. (AP: Pavel Golovkin)
But if that was as good as punters thought it would get for Russia, they had another thing coming.
In the first minute of injury time, Cheryshev advanced into the Saudi box, and unleashed an inside-out lobbed shot on goal, beating the keeper in the flight and prompting delirium in the stands.
Optus Sport tweets Cheryshev scored the second and he deliciously grabbed the fourth. Was this the goal of the night?
Cheryshev had seized his moment and, whatever happens from here on in Russia’s campaign, ensured his spot as an icon of football in the motherland.
One man who looks set for a big move, possibly to Juventus, is Aleksandr Golovin, and he did his best to steal the show with effectively the last kick of the game.
Aleksandr Golovin’s free kick could not have been more sweetly struck, or better placed. (Reuters: Carl Recine)
A free-kick just outside the area in the 93rd minute, right of centre, saw the midfielder curl in a perfectly angled shot, tucked inside the near post to cap off an incredible result for the hosts.
It was perfect reward for Golovin, who ran the show throughout and was involved in four of the five goals Russia scored.
Russia’s next objective? A clash with Mohamed Salah’s Egypt on June 20 (AEST), where they will be certain to face a much sterner examination than Saudi Arabia offered.
After that, a daunting last clash with Uruguay. With three points under their belt, the Russians will be hoping to sneak a win against one of their two more vaunted opponents, although two draws will almost guarantee safe passage to the round of 16.