Slovakia led by Marek Hamsik magic in deserved 2-1 win over sloppy Russia
LILLE -- Three points from a frantic game as Slovakia held on to beat Russia 2-1 in their Group B clash.
1. Hamsik brilliance wins it for Slovakia
Slovakia have arrived at Euro 2016, and so has Marek Hamsik. Their manager, Jan Kozak, had lamented an "unnecessary" defeat to Wales in their first game but this was a wonderful response, and one led by their talismanic playmaker.
The headline moment, and one that may stand comparison with any goal scored in this tournament, came with the last action of the first half. Hamsik received a short corner from Vladimir Weiss on the left side of the Russia penalty area and jinked all too easily past his fellow No. 17, Oleg Shatov. The angle was not easy but Hamsik, drawing back his right foot, thundered a rocket of a shot that rattled off the far post and flew into the opposite corner of the net.
It was a thrilling moment, deservedly doubling Slovakia's lead, but it wasn't the game's first; Hamsik had in fact already pulled a trick from his sleeve in a Group B match that had been crying out for inspiration.
With the teams deadlocked shortly after the half-hour mark, the Napoli player took possession just inside the centre circle in his own half. One look up and one laser-like pass later, he had sprung left-winger Weiss clear. The ensuing finish, after Weiss had left two Russian defenders in his speedy wake, was crisp and clinical.
Hamsik thrived during that opening period, buoyed by the movement around him that was aided by the selection of Ondrej Duda, nominally an attacking midfielder but a diminutive bundle of ideas, as the lone striker. An adroit piece of control in the 10th minute led to a shot just over and he came close, too, with another off-target shot after dribbling past two defenders.
Hamsik and his teammates were pegged back late on by Denis Glushakov's consolation header but only one of these teams possessed a talent worthy of winning this match. Any more of this over the coming week and Slovakia will be capable of damaging better opponents.
2. Slack defending leaves Russia on the brink
England might look at Russia's defending on Wednesday and wonder how on earth they were not far out of sight before Vasili Berezutski's dramatic equaliser. Berezutski and his defensive colleagues were pulled apart time and again by Slovakia's movement here, with the centre-back directly implicated in their opener.
He and right-back Igor Smolnikov, who Weiss and Hamsik had caught napping, gave desperate chase to the wide man and both made the same hurtling, aimless run as he checked back. The result was the comical sight of two Russian defenders sliding on their backsides as Weiss, who surely could not have expected to manufacture such a clear sight of goal, was given all the time he needed. If one of the defenders had remained calm, there would have been an extra man to beat but it was an incident that captured their lack of cool.
There was little to commend in Shatov's lack of presence before the second goal either and Hamsik should certainly not have been allowed to receive the flag kick in such an advanced position.
Russia's sloppiness at the back summed up their day. Things were little better further forward either despite some extended periods of possession. Shatov, a twinkle-footed attacking midfielder whose background in futsal is evident in his close control, found some pockets of space but received little assistance until his clipped delivery from the byline was headed in by substitute Glushakov 10 minutes from time.
The goal led to an occasionally frantic finale but Russia lacked the craft to score a second and ultimately looked what they are: a limited side with deep flaws at both ends of the pitch. Their future may hinge on the result of Wales' match against England on Thursday. A draw, keeping all four teams within a win of each other, looks the most desirable outcome but even so it is hard to make a good case for their progress now.
3. Calm in the stands gives Russia some consolation
Wednesday's 2-1 defeat capped a miserable and uncertain few days for Russia. You wonder to what extent the noise around their suspended disqualification from this tournament might have affected their preparations for this game, with several members of the camp speaking openly to the media. If nothing else, a trouble-free afternoon ensured that their fixture against Wales will go ahead as planned.
Eyes were always going to be trained on the stands for this one, particularly towards the Russian end. Ultimately, there was nothing to see. The atmosphere was far from menacing and not even especially boisterous, with plenty of empty seats dotted around Stade Pierre-Mauroy. The pre-match decision to make use of the stadium's roof (showers had been expected during the day) made for an odd, echoey feel.
By the 12th minute, both sets of fans had engaged in something as innocent as a Mexican wave. There was little edge to the occasion and for a period before Weiss' goal, the only significant noise was that of a lone drummer in the Slovakia end. It was the Slovakians who would be cheering for the rest of the afternoon and further noise from the Russian contingent, outnumbered in the stands, was more plaintive than rousing until Glushakov's goal inspired one last push. Almost perversely, a lone flare was promptly lit in the Russia end; it's against UEFA regulations but unlikely to be the last straw here.
As the final whistle blew, everyone filed off, acquiescent, with no hint of the horrors of Marseille; it would be a sad day if a match was deemed won simply for being virtually incident-free, but Russia are at least still able to plot some kind of future at Euro 2016.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.