It was said Russia would struggle to make an impact at their own World Cup but thanks in part to the CSKA midfielder, the hosts are off to a flyer
They said if Russia were going to have any chance of progressing from Group A then two things would have to happen.
One, three points had to be obtained in their first match against Saudi Arabia. Two, Aleksandr Golovin was going to have to show up.
And on those two counts things went exceptionally well for the coach Stanislav Cherchesov and his team.
There’s dampening down expectations and then there’s dragging a team’s expectations so low that avoiding a hammering feels like a result.
Russian media – and indeed foreign observers – built up to this World Cup by describing the national team as the worst iteration in history and destined for the wooden spoon. Well, maybe they’re not that bad after all.
Granted, it is difficult to ascertain just how good a side can be when they don’t have competitive games to play and on the evidence of last year’s Confederations Cup washout, you’d be forgiven for thinking Russia had a dud team.
But they broke out here to defy the naysayers and give the home fans a result they could only dream of. There were 78,011 fans inside the massive Luzkniki providing the noise and the backdrop to this one. And Russia embraced the pressure put upon their shoulders by a fandom that is less expectant and more hopeful. It would be easy to hide, easy to make mistakes but Russia settled and then excelled in front of goal.
Saudi Arabia are the weakest team in the group and even still they had most of the ball. Midfielder Abdullah Otayf – very much in the Xavi mould – dictated the tempo of the play.
Even though the Green Eagles have only had a few months under their coach Juan Antonio Pizzi they appear to have taken on board his instructions of a high press and dominance in possession.
They were the better team between the two boxes – which sounds absurd considering they lost 5-0 – with enterprising wide men Mohamed Alburyak and Yasir Alshahrani getting forward often to create more lines of attack.
One problem is that luckless striker Mohammed Alsahlawi is badly out of touch and without a goal in more than a year.
Pizzi’s team are suffering from a crisis in confidence when it comes to goalscoring and gave Igor Akinfeev – and 38-year-old CSKA Moscow colleague Sergey Ignashevich – little to worry about.
At the other end the man who’s just turned 22 – Golovin – made sure Russia could capitalise on all the mistakes the Saudis were making.
He assisted the opener for Krasnodar’s Iury Gazinsky. He prompted the second which Roman Zobnin eventually laid on for substitute Denis Cheryshev. He gave the pass for Artem Dzyuba’s third even if the stunning fourth was all the work of Cheryshev.
The fifth – from the boot of Golovin himself – will be recognised by Arsenal fans who saw him do the same thing for CSKA at the Emirates a few weeks back.
The only thing to sour Russia’s night was the bad injury suffered by Alan Dzagoev. The playmaker went down heavily clutching his hamstring and his tears suggest his World Cup is over before it’s really begun.
Article continues below
Plenty then for president Vladimir Putin to admire from the opening game. He sat in the VIP seats with FIFA president Gianni Infantino and Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed.
There was a minor disagreement between Putin and the Prince when the first goal went in due to a perceived push in the build-up by Gazinky on his opponent. It wasn’t given and Prince Mohammed let Putin know what it thought.
But it was Russia’s night and Golovin’s night. Five goals, three points and one very happy nation.