It wasn’t expected to be a great game, and it wasn’t.
Russia are ranked 66th in the world, Saudi Arabia are 67th. Between them, they are the two lowest-ranked sides in the World Cup and the quality of the football wasn’t expected to be very high. It wasn’t.
But the 5-0 result in a surprisingly one-sided game would have pleased hosts Russia no end. They could not have asked for a better start to their campaign. Saudi Arabia were poor – in defence and in attack (they didn’t have a single shot on target despite having pretty good possession numbers) and they paid the price for it. But Russia made their opportunities count and in a World Cup, nothing matters more than that.
Coming into the World Cup, the Saudi defence was supposed to be susceptible to pace and Russia managed to get behind them with surprising ease. It clearly was a case of one of the best Asian teams not knowing what to do against top-calibre attackers. Slightly off-tangent but if this could happen to the Saudis, imagine what would happen to India whose Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore believes the national team will make it to the World Cup soon. The gulf in quality was apparent every step of the way.
Back to the match, Russia employed the high press and chased down the ball early in the first half. They hardly ever gave Saudi Arabia time to settle down and it paid dividends when Yuriy Gazinsky headed the hosts into the lead in the 12th minute. It should have spurred Saudi Arabia into action but they did precious little. They continued in the same vein — giving the ball away at every possible opportunity and looking mostly lost on the field.
Denis Cheryshev (43’, 90’), Artem Dzyuba (71’) and Alexandr Golovin (94’) added to their misery with some wonderful goals. Particularly heartening from Russia’s point of view was the influence of Golovin on the game.
When Alan Dzagoev, Russia’s most exciting creative force of the past decade, was forced to go off injured, it looked liked the hosts, whose own form has been suspect, might struggle. But the 22-year-old Golovin stepped into the breach and produced a game of rare class. The Saudis might have made his job easier but two assists and a goal will leave him feel rather confident about his game when they run into Egypt next.
From an Asian perspective, Saudi Arabia’s loss was disappointing to say the least. Japan’s 3-1 win over Denmark in the 2010 World Cup was the last time an Asian side won in the showpiece event. Since then, four draws and 12 defeats.
Before the game, Saudi coach Juan Antonio Pizzi told Arab News about how he expected his team to play: “I like to press high up the park and put the opponents under pressure. Take the ball to the offensive line and get into a situation where we can score. Sometimes that happens and other times it is not very effective, but that’s the general objective.”
Since taking over, Pizzi – who led Chile to the 2016 Copa América title – has tried to truly change the way Saudi Arabia play football. He has organised three European camps, plenty of friendlies and extensive intensive camps with the team.
And given that money isn’t an issue for the Saudis, they should have been better prepared. They should have. But instead, they seemed flat. It makes one wonder whether other Asian teams could do any better?
Japan and Korea have a better domestic structure and they are certainly managing to attract the attention of European teams but there are still not enough. The numbers aren’t huge but they will be more competitive. And the same is true of Iran too.
But will it be enough to break into the top tier of world football? If we take the the Saudi Arabia-Russia result as evidence, it won’t but stranger things have happened in sport.