KEIR RADNEDGE in ST PETERSBURG —- Russia celebrated their essential kickoff victory by defeating New Zealand 2-0 in the Opening Match here of the 2017 Confederations Cup. A first-half own goal from Michael Boxall and close-range second-half strike from Fedor Smolov were sufficient unto their day.
The new Krestovsky Island stadium had been just over three-quarters full for a match which launched the hosts’ competitive countdown towards the 2018 World Cup finals in front of a crowd including Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s state President welcomed the world and declared competition under way before FIFA head Gianni Infantino urged fans to follow his own example and “come to a warm and welcoming country.”
A VIP guest list which included Pele followed events which were not so welcoming out on the pitch for Oceania champions New Zealand.
They performed valiantly in the first half of a Group A match against technically superior opponents, doubtless hoping to irritate home fans into pressurising their own new-look national team. The plan worked – but only for so long.
Russia began brightly. New Zealand keeper Stefan Marinovic deflected an Aleksandr Golovin drive for a corner more by luck than judgment then Viktor Vasin saw his header to a right-wing corner hit a post only for Michael McGlinchey to clear off the line.
Minutes later Fedor Smolov chested down a cross from raiding rightback Alexander Samedov but let the ball run away so the All-Whites could clear out of their goal area.
New Zealand, having weathered the opening exchanges, began to venture forward. But any impatience among the Russian fans was soon quelled. New Zealand lost possession outside their own penalty box, Denis Glushakov nimbly hurdled Marinovic in pursuit of a through ball which was ultimately stabbed over the line inadvertently by defender Michael Boxall.
Russia might have put the result out of reach immediately after the interval only for Marinovic to accomplish two sharp saves from Rostov’s out-of-luck Dmitry Poloz before Samedov skimmed a free kick inches over the bar.
Almost all the action was in the New Zealand half and they finally conceded the inevitable second goal when Samedov crossed perfectly from the right for official man-of-the-match Smolov to convert at the far post.
Too late New Zealand began to put their attack together. Ryan Thomas drew an acrobatic diving save from Igor Akinfeyev and then, when the goalkeeper was beaten by Tommy Smith’s header, Yury Zhirkov cleared off the line.
Those scares apart, Russia had no further problems running down the clock. They were not particularly good but they were good enough and they won and that was what mattered most.
Russia: Akinfeyev – Samedov, Dzhikya, Vasin, Kudriashov, Zhirkov – Erokhin (Tarasov 76), Glushakov, Golovin – Smolov (Miranchuk 89), Poloz (Bukharov 63). Coach: Cherchesov.
New Zealand: Marinovic – Colvey (Patterson 83), Boxall, Durante, Smith, Wynne – McGlinchey, Rojas (Smeltz 71), Thomas – Wood, Barbarouses (Tuiloma 60). Coach: Hudson.
Referee: Roldan (Colombia). Attendance: 50,251.