With less than 15 minutes to go for the opening game of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and just prior to a speech by Russian president Vladimir Putin, the public announcement system at the Luzhniki Stadium here played AC/DC’s iconic number Thunderstruck. (FIFA World Cup 2018, Russia vs Saudi Arabia highlights)
The song drew an immediate reaction as the 80,000-strong crowd, already caught in the delirium of the impending kickoff, raised the decibel level considerably by singing along.
By the time the curtain-raiser between hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia began, it was deafening at the Luzhniki.
Rallied on by their fans, the Russian players began with a spring in their steps. By now, the crowd had shifted to a more sober chanting of ‘Russia, Russia!’.
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A precursor to what was going to going to unfold – a thumping 5-0 win for the World Cup hosts – came in the seventh minute when Mario Fernandes cut back from the right flank for Alexander Samedov, only for the ball to be diverted away by the Saudi backline.
Four minutes later, Alan Dzagoev, playing behind forward Fedor Smolov, shot from close range. It was deflected but Saudi Arabia hadn’t averted danger yet.
Aleksandr Golovin, who would prove so vital for the hosts throughout the evening, put in an inch-perfect cross from the left flank just a minute later. Having looked shaky in the opening exchanges, the Saudi backline left Russian midfielder Iury Gazinski unmarked inside the box.
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Gazinsky headed home with ease, leading to jubilant scenes in the stands. It was Gazinsky’s first ever goal in international football and perhaps one of the most important he will ever score.
Just 10 minutes later, however, disaster struck for the hosts. There have been fewer players with as much influence in the Russian team as Alan Dzagoev in recent years. The attacking midfielder pulled a hamstring while chasing a ball and left a blot in what would turn out to be a memorable evening for Russia. He was replaced by Denis Cheryshev.
Saudi Arabia continued to struggle with Salem Al Dawsari’s wild attempt in the 28th minute, which went well over the bar, indicating the frustration building up in the team.
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In the 35th minute, Golovin went down inside the box as Saudi defenders struggled to keep up with his pace and movement. Play was waved on but seven minutes later Russia struck again.
With Golovin setting up the ball for Roman Zobnin, who was in space, Saudi Arabia’s backline was split open. Zobnin passed the ball to Chryshev who hesitated for a moment but quickly recovered and passed a defender before hitting a left-footed shot into the goal.
Saudis Arabia’s struggles continued but things could have been a bit different had Mohammed Al Sahlawi or Taiseer Al Jassam managed to connect to a cross in the 56th minute.
Neither did, and 15 minutes later, Golovin’s cross from the right wing – by now, he had played across three different attacking positions behind the striker – set up a comfortable header for substitute Artem Dzyuba as Russia made it 3-0.
That is how it seemed the game would end as the fourth official signalled three minutes of injury-time. Cheryshev, however, was in no mood for respite as he unleashed a left-footed stunner from the edge of the box to make it 4-0.
A couple of minutes later, Golovin rounded off a fantastic night for himself and Russia with a free-kick that flew into the back of the net leaving Saudi goalkeeper Abdullah Almuaiouf a mere spectator.
It was a magical night for the hosts, a start few of their fans would have dreamt off. They will now move to Saint Petersburg to play Egypt on Tuesday.
Whatever Stanislav Cherchesov’s side manages to pull off in this tournament, it may never be able to replicate a performance as perfect as this.