Russia up and running as super-subs Cheryshev, Dzyuba seize chance after Dzagoev blow
MOSCOW -- Three quick points on Russia 5-0 Saudi Arabia in their Group A opener at the World Cup on Thursday afternoon.
1. Rampant Russia are up and running
It was a game that many in Russia had feared could turn into an embarrassment, but rather than let their country down, Stanislav Cherchesov's team gave the World Cup a perfect start by cruising to a 5-0 victory against Saudi Arabia in Moscow.
The end result was a win beyond Russia's wildest dreams as the hosts claimed their biggest World Cup victory since defeating Hungary 6-0 in 1986.
There are few cliches that hold more truth than a World Cup needing a successful host, and Russia can now throw itself into this tournament in the hope and belief that Cherchesov's team can progress to the knockout stages.
Only South Africa, in 2010, have failed to qualify from the group as the host nation, and Russia must still get a positive result against Egypt and Uruguay to emerge from Group A.
But after Iury Gazinsky scored the first goal of this World Cup to give Russia the lead in the 12th minute, a home win was never in doubt, and the feelgood factor this result will now generate is crucial for the tournament as a whole.
Russia even overcame the setback of losing midfielder Alan Dzagoev to a 22nd-minute injury by scoring again through Denis Cheryshev (twice) and Artem Dzyuba to record a convincing victory. Aleksandr Golovin's stoppage time free-kick to make it 5-0 was the icing on the cake for the Russians.
Cherchesov's team still has issues to address, with a distinct lack of pace likely to prove a problem against stronger opponents.
But the confidence that this win will generate can ensure that Russia will go into next Tuesday's clash with Egypt in Saint Petersburg believing they can secure the victory that will confirm a place in the second round.
Every World Cup needs the host nation to energise the population, and Russia have ticked that box with this result.
2. Hosts overcome Dzagoev blow, but tournament would miss him
Having lost several key players to injury before the World Cup, the loss of Dzagoev to what appeared to be a hamstring pull halfway through the first half of the opening game was merely another setback for coach Cherchesov.
Dzagoev's replacement, Cheryshev, certainly stepped into the breach by scoring two goals after replacing the CSKA Moscow midfielder, including a stunner to make it 4-0, but the hosts cannot afford to have their resources depleted even further by the loss of one of their best players.
Time will tell whether Dzagoev can overcome his injury in order to play a further part at this World Cup, but the 27-year-old has a chequered fitness record in recent years, with a succession of muscular problems forcing him to miss countless games for club and country.
Golovin is the young star of this Russia team, and the CSKA midfielder was impressive against the Saudis, but Dzagoev's class and experience will be a key loss if he fails to recover in time for the remaining Group A games against Egypt and Uruguay.
Cheryshev showed he can fill the void to a certain extent, and there is no better way to make an impression than by scoring a goal.
But the tests will get progressively tougher for the Russians from this point on, and Dzagoev's absence, if he does suffer a spell on the sidelines, will be felt.
The positives for Russia, however, were the performances of Golovin and the defensive displays of Ilya Kutepov and the veteran centre-half Sergei Ignashevich.
Perhaps the hosts aren't quite as bad as has been feared.
3. Lightweight Saudi Arabia look doomed already
Russia could not have hand-picked a more beatable opponent than Saudi Arabia for their World Cup opener.
Although their World Cup record marks them out as one of the most consistent qualifiers from the Asian Football Confederation, the Saudis have not won a game at the finals since securing victories against Belgium and Morocco at USA '94 and had failed to score in five of their last six games at the tournament before this fixture in Moscow.
But while Juan Antonio Pizzi's team are rank outsiders at Russia 2018, they could have done more to exploit the nerves and tension of the hosts inside the Luzhniki.
Aside from wing-back Yasser Al Shahrani, who impressed down the left flank, Saudi Arabia offered little and did not even threaten a shot on target.
One of the biggest issues they faced was the physical challenge against a much stronger and imposing Russian team.
Virtually all of Pizzi's players lack the physique of players accustomed to performing at the highest level, and it showed in this game, with Russia dominated in every aspect.
With their squad all based in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia's lack of exposure to games against the elite is another problem they have to overcome to have any hope of competing at this level in the future.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_