Even though Russia doesn’t have their Mother’s Day until November, June 19 is a day Mother Russia can celebrate as they qualified for the last 16 of their World Cup. She had to be proud of her footballing sons after they Saudi Arabia and Egypt by a combined score of 8-1, a stark contrast to their form in friendlies and Euro 2016 in preparing to host the world’s best.
How did Russia achieve the bare minimum they aimed for ahead of this tournament? And what are their chances once they reach the knockout phase?
Chery-shing the Opportunity
Though Russia was leading when this happened, their World Cup changed on a dime for the hosts on opening day once Alan Dzagoev went off with a hamstring injury. Once looked upon as the future of Russian football, the now 28-year-old CSKA Moscow midfielder has been hampered by injury and inconsistency throughout his career.
As soon as Dzagoev went on and his replacement, Villarreal’s Denis Cheryshev, came on, Russia’s attack found another couple of gears. Mind you, you don’t really need to get out of first gear against a weak Saudi Arabia side. However, Cheryshev’s inclusion allowed for a more fluid Russian attack. Their other highly-touted midfielder and Dzagoev’s club teammate, Aleksandr Golovin, moved from the flank to his preferred central role, a role he bossed throughout. Cheryshev, a former Real Madrid farm hand, gave Russia more directness on the left and scored a pair for good measure to send the hosts on their way to a five-star opening win.
All this carried over to their win over Egypt, with Russia using their width and movement to near perfection when necessary. Another CSKA man, right back Mário Fernandes, was superb on the right side, with Cheryshev slotting in his cross to send the hosts on their way to their first last 16 birth since the fall of the Soviet Union. Add in the sheer bruteness of Zenit St. Petersburg frontman, Artem Dzyuba, as well as his pair of goals, and Stanislav Cherchesov’s side looked, for two games anyway, like a more diverse attacking unit.
Unfazed, Yet Untested
An even bigger worry about Russia coming into this World Cup was their slow, ageing defence. After all, it’s headed by a man in CSKA centre-back, Sergei Ignashevich, who came out of retirement at 38 years old to hold the fort in their back line. Also with former Chelsea and Hamburg full back, Yuri Zhirkov (34), and wingback Denis Samedov (33) still prominent parts of the squad, it’s understandable why that concern existed.
Credit where it’s due. They’ve looked solid thus far through two games, only conceding a Mohamed Salah penalty to this point. But that’s more on how limited their opponents have been that Russia’s defence doing anything notable. The Saudis have no one resembling the iconic Sami Al-Jaber upfront while Egypt has no attacking threat outside of Salah, a Salah who isn’t even fully fit, mind you. Let’s see how this backline looks going against Suárez and Cavani for Uruguay as well as against Portugal/Spain in the last 16 before making a judgement call.
Prove Your Worth
If Mother Russia wants to give birth to new life in its footballing history, Aleksandr Golovin must live up to the hype that’s been surrounding his game in recent times.
The 22-year-old is reportedly being eyed by the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea and having seen him in Europa League play, it’s somewhat understandable why he’d be wanted. He’s got a good passing range, can play as a number 10 or as a box-to-box midfielder, and has a respectable set piece on him. He showed his capabilities in the first two games, but if he’s to validate all the talk (some of it by his own father) that has surrounded him, he’ll need to replicate those performances against Uruguay and Portugal/Spain.
If Golovin can, big things may be in his international and club future. The odds of that happening? Small. He’s one of the few legitimate athletes and dribblers in an otherwise limited side. However, he’ll need to shake off his naive tendencies and work on his crossing against sides who won’t allow as much time and space on the ball. It’s time to show how great you can be, Aleksandr.