ST PETERSBURG: Played two, won two. In a World Cup of shocks this may be the most remarkable – that after a mere five days of competition hosts Russia are virtually through to the knockout stage.
Last Thursday’s opening 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia was one thing. The Saudis were suffering from stage fright and two of the goals came in second-half stoppage time. But following through with a 3-1 dismissal of Egypt’s Pharoaohs was something else.
A rebuilt Luzhniki in Moscow last Thursday and the new Krestovsky Island stadium in St Petersburg were the scenes of delight and revival of belief in a Sbornaja who had begun ‘their’ own finals bottom of the FIFA rankings among all the 32 teams here.
Egypt entered their second Group A match with Mohamed Salah in the starting line-up after concerns over his shoulder injury had seen him miss last Friday’s defeat by Uruguay.
Salah lived up to his billing in bringing not only a special talent but a massive injection of confidence to his team. Before the interval he went close to opening the scoring with a header and an angled shot which sped narrowly wide of Igor Akinfeyev’s left-hand post.
But within 16 minutes of the resumption the game, for Egypt and Salah, was lost. Ahmed Fathi sliced a cross-shot from Roman Zobnin into his own net, Denis Cheryshev struck a close-range second and Artem Dzyuba was gifted all the time in the World Cup in which to thump a third.
Salah did pull one goal back from a penalty after he had been tripped – inside the area as amended by VAR – but nothing could spoil the Russian night and the almost certain prospect of a place in the knockout stage for the first time in the modern era.
The old Soviet Union stood aloof from international football for years. They entered the World Cup only after first having won Olympic gold in Melbourne in 1956. In goal was the legendary Lev Yashin, whose image adorns the World Cup poster.
Seven times the Soviet Union reached the finals, failing in the group stage only once and with a best finish of fourth in 1966. Their Russian successors are now in the finals for the fourth time and this will be the first occasion on which they have progressed.
That is not only exciting for the host nation but important for world federation FIFA. A World Cup needs the hosts to enjoy a measure of success to fuel the momentum of event enthusiasm, the ‘feel-good factor’.
Russia and FIFA feel very good right now.