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From Real Madrid goat to Russia hero, Denis Cheryshev scores another memorable first

The FC crew break down Russia's hot start to the World Cup and try to temper expectations ahead of their remaining group stage games.
ESPN FC's Kasey Keller praises Russia's direct play and how well they used their strengths in a convincing 5-0 win against Saudi Arabia.
Philippe Coutinho, Neymar and the Brazil squad star in episode two of Project Russia, also featuring a momentous day for U.S. soccer.

It was December 2, 2015. And Denis Cheryshev, a Real Madrid academy product and the first Russian to ever play for Los Blancos, scored his first goal for the club in a 3-1 away victory over Cadiz in the two teams' Copa del Rey round-of-32 second-leg tie.

Two days later, Real were eliminated from the competition. Cheryshev had been barred from playing in the match. He should have been serving a suspension for an accumulation of yellow cards in the previous edition of the tournament, back when he was loaned to Villarreal, and so Real were thrown out on a technicality.

The club alleged they hadn't been notified of his ban. The player hadn't known of his punishment, either. But the incident effectively ended Cheryshev's career at Real Madrid. He was loaned back to Villarreal and then sold to them for €7 million the following summer. Now, at the Bernabeu, he is only a rival.

On the same day he became the face of an embarrassing episode for the club, Cheryshev posted a motivational message on Twitter: "Now that don't kill me, can only make me stronger."

Nearly 1,000 days later (920 to be exact), in the opening game of the 2018 World Cup played on home soil, his message appeared prophetic. Cheryshev began Russia's Group A bow against Saudi Arabia on the bench. But in the 24th minute, Russia's star striker, Alan Dzagoev, left the match with a hamstring injury, so the ex-Real Madrid man quickly warmed up and took his place.

And in the 43rd minute, redemption. After receiving a pass from Roman Zobnin in the box, Cheryshev loaded up his left foot, but two defenders threw themselves onto the ground to stop the shot. So the Russian showed his ability, lifting the ball over the fallen defenders and, with space, fired home Russia's second goal in spectacular fashion.

The superb strike marked the Russian midfielder's first for his country. And he apparently enjoyed the experience so much that he scored his country's fourth in a 5-0 rout, with a sumptuous outside-of-the-boot finish from the edge of the area.

But no matter what happens from here, one thing, we can say, is for certain: Cheryshev's firsts are always unforgettable.

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