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Pakistan’s Telstar 18 football stars in World Cup opener

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Saudi Arabia went into the match three places higher than Russia in the FIFA rankings and confident they could get the win that would hopefully set up a place in the knockout stage. 

It took just 45 minutes for both states of affairs to be shown up as fanciful in the extreme. In terms of what Juan Antonio Pizzi would have wanted to avoid in the first half — not giving possession away, remaining calm in defence, and keeping a cleansheet — it is fair to say it could not have gone much worse.

Goals from Yuri Gazinskiy and Denis Cheryshev during the first period laid bare the gulf in class and a Artem Dzyuba strike, another from Cheryshev and a Aleksandr Golovin free-kick in the second period was no more than the hosts deserved. 

The Green Falcons come into the match on the back of three straight defeats — to Germany, Italy and Peru. But there were enough positives from those matches for the side to take the field today hopeful they could upset their Russian hosts. That was not a bad attitude considering Russia went into the clash winless in seven matches. 

But after the opening cagey exchanges — during which neither side committed men forward in any numbers — Stanislav Cherchesov’s side betrayed any nerves they may have been feeling and grew in confidence, finding space between the Saudi Arabia midfield and defence with too much ease. 

If that annoyed Pizzi then there’s little doubt the way the opener came would have dismayed him more. Golovin put in an in-swinging cross that should have been dealt with by the Green Falcons’ defence, but Osama Hawsawi and Co were statuesque as Yuri Gazinskiy headed past the stranded Abdullah Al-Muaiouf in the Saudi goal. 

It was the perfect nerve-settler for the hosts and just the start the cautious Pizzi was wanting to avoid. 

It may have only been the 11th minute but the goal had been coming and soon after Russia almost got a second. Fedor Smolov’s shot was deflected and looped into the air, but Al-Muaiouf managed to claw it away. 

On the odd occasion Saudi Arabia did get into the final third Mohammed Al-Sahlawi looked isolated, in stark contrast to the Russians who attacked on the counter and in increasing numbers. 

The lack of composure on the ball and, even more glaringly, a holding midfielder was all too clear to see. Both combined to gift Russia their two-goal cushion heading into the break. 

The Green Falcons lost the ball in their own half, the hosts broke from deep with Roman Zobnin playing in Denis Cheryshev, who showed two good feet to dink it over the sliding body of Mohammed Al-Burayk before smashing high past Al-Muaiouf. 

It was all too easy for the side that had been written off by a lot of their fans before the kick-off, but the 2-0 scoreline did not flatter the hosts. 

After the break it was much the same story. Saudi Arabia looking comfortable in possession but played everything in front of the Russia backline and were unable to hurt them — a Salman Al-Faraj header that drifted wide of the post the most they had too show for all their forays into the Russian half. 

When substitute Dzyuba headed in Russia’s third with just his second touch, the worry was that it would signal for the floodgates to open. Those fears were well founded as, on 90 minutes, Cheryshev found himslef on the edge of the box before hitting an absolutely fine shot on the outside of his foot which flew high into the back of the net.

Just four minutes later Golovin scored with a brilliant free-kick, the ease with which he stroked the ball matched only by the ease with which the Russians found space throughout the 90 minutes.

Saudi Arabia went into the match with hope, they walked off the pitch in despair knowing the second round is all but now out of reach for them. They now have four days to pick themselves up and prepare for their next clash against group favorites Uruguay, who get their campaign started against Egypt today. 

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