Expected, yet encouraging. Pretty much the summary of an opening game of the Confederations Cup which looked more like a scrimmage than a proper contest. But tournament hosts, Russia, will have no qualms about that as they got their tournament to a positive start against New Zealand on Saturday.

As explained in our preview, this is a Russian squad lacking star power and technical prowess. They will need their all-domestic squad to overachieve in a group that also includes European champions, Portugal, and CONCACAF giants, Mexico. They didn’t need to worry too much about their weaknesses though, facing a Kiwis side that lacked any imagination and whose back looked very shaky in the absence of captain and West Ham central defender, Winston Reid, due to injury.

After missing three golden chances – hitting the post twice – in the first 12 minutes, it looked a matter of time before the hosts capitalised and in the 31st minute, a well-executed high press led to a one-two between FC Rostov teammates, Alexsandr Erohkin and Dmitriy Poloz which sent through box-to-box midfielder, Denis Glushakov, who lobbed the ball over New Zealand goalkeeper, Stefan Marinovic, before being fumbled over the line by defender, Michael Boxall.

One of those players the hosts will be relying on to take his game to new heights in this tournament is FC Krasnodar forward, Fedor Smolov, who has bagged 38 Russian Premier League goals in the last two seasons. Easily the best player on the pitch against the Kiwis, Smolov’s movement caused all sorts of problems for New Zealand, often coming deep to collect the ball and using deft touches to throw off defenders while opening up spaces for Yuri Zhirkov and Denis Samedov to exploit along the flanks. His hard work paid off in the 69th minute when he picked up the ball at the half way line, fed a persistently lively Samedov on the wing, who crossed it back to Smolov to tap home past Marinovic.

Aside from a five-minute spell New Zealand had short after Smolov’s goal which finally tested Igor Akinfeev in the hosts’ net, Russia were hardly bothered by a side who looked as uninspiring as president, Vladimir Putin’s lengthy pre-game speech was.

Manager Stanislav Cherchesov’s 3-5-2 formation worked fluently in this game, but he knows his midfield, led by the aforementioned Glushakov, will need to dig in more against technically superior opposition, using instinct and timing both when making passes and runs to the opposing box. Zhirkov and Samedov had very little to do defensively and essentially had free reign to barge up the pitch whenever they wanted to. In their next group fixture though, these thirty-something midfielders have the small matter of going up against Cristiano Ronaldo and Bernardo Silva along the flanks as they take on Portugal on Wednesday. No pressure guys!
SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA – JUNE 17: Dennis Glushakov of Russia controls the ball under pressure of Monty Patterson of New Zealand during the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017 Group A match between Russia and New Zealand at Saint Petersburg Stadium on June 17, 2017 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Alex Livesey – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
The 59% of possession Russia enjoyed in this game will be their apex in that department as they will have to work harder off the ball to frustrate opponents. They will also need the playmaking ability of reported Arsenal target, Alexsandr Golovin, to shine through on the counterattack as he was relatively pedestrian against New Zealand.
The optimism surrounding Russia’s national team is low-key, especially considering they came into this tournament having won just three of their last 15 international matches. But a positive result against the European champs could help unlock Mother Russia’s potential going forward.