World Cup: Denis Cheryshev struck twice for Russia as the World Cup hosts thumped Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the opening match of the tournament in Moscow.
Iury Gazinsky scored after 12 minutes and Cheryshev added a second before the break after coming on as an injury replacement for Alan Dzagoev.
Artem Dzuyba netted a third before terrific late efforts from Cheryshev and Aleksandr Golovin wrapped up Russia’s first win since October to launch their Group A campaign in style.
Russia headed into the curtainraiser at the 80,000-capacity Luzhniki, the crucible of Russian and Soviet sport, without a victory in over eight months and ranked a lowly 70th in the world.
For Saudi Arabia it was a return to the global showpiece for the first time in 12 years, with their only previous finals wins at the 1994 World Cup.
Only South Africa, in 2010, have failed to advance from the group stage as the host nation and a seven-match winless run had ramped up the pressure on Stanislav Cherchesov’s side.
A lack of an attacking threat in recent outings was a primary concern for Russia going into a group campaign in which they will also face Egypt and Uruguay.
Those fears were soon washed away, at least for the time being, as Alexander Samedov and Fedor Smolov carved out early chances only to be denied by desperate sliding blocks.
The opening goal came soon after, as Saudi Arabia failed to clear a corner and a curling cross in from the left by Golovin picked out an unmarked Gazinsky to head low into the far corner.
It was a goal that prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to turn to the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, seated alongside FIFA chief Gianni Infantino, and shake his hand.
Russia lost Dzagoev to a hamstring injury midway through the first half, the CSKA Moscow midfielder clutching his hamstring as he crumpled to the turf.
But his replacement, former Real Madrid winger Cheryshev, celebrated his recent recall to the national side with Russia’s second goal two minutes before half-time.
Cheryshev was still left with plenty of work to do inside the area after a pass from Roman Zobnin, brilliantly flicking the ball past two closing defenders before rifling into the roof of the net.
Saudi briefly threatened early in the second half when an inviting cross in from the right skipped just beyond the reach of Taiseer Al-Jassam.
Russia then nearly grabbed a third when Abdullah Al-Muaiouf spilled a low drive from Roman Zobnin, the Saudi goalkeeper recovering just time in time to nudge the ball away from Smolov.
The forward was soon replaced by Dzyuba, who struck almost immediately by heading another Golovin cross beyond a helpless Muaiouf in the 71st minute.
Cheryshev hammered in a fourth with the outside of his left in stoppage time and Golovin capped a magnificent performance by bending in a last-gasp free-kick.
Russia meet Egypt in their next match on June 19 in Saint Petersburg, while Saudi Arabia will look to rebound against group favourites Rostov-on-Don a day later.
The Saudi Arabia coach Juan Antonio Pizzi described a “feeling of shame” after his side suffered a 5-0 hammering at the hands of hosts Russia in the World Cup opening game at the Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday.
“The opposing team really didn’t have to make a huge effort to win this game,” he said after a one-sided showing that marked a dream start for the home team in front of a capacity crowd.
“We have now to forget this feeling of shame and start thinking about the next match.”
Yet given Saudi Arabia’s high turnover of coaches, including a previous mid-World Cup sacking, the Argentine-born Pizzi could well be on his way before he gets a chance to try and rectify the situation.
He conceded questions about his future after the heavy defeat were justified.
“The way I feel right now makes that a valid point but whatever happens I’ve got my philosophy and I’ll try to do as best I can. I trust in our plans and I trust in my players and I trust we’ll have a better performance in our next game,” he saidat the post-match news conference.
Pizzi was appointed to the job after Saudi Arabia qualified last year for the finals. They inexplicably sacked Bert van Marwijk despite a successful campaign and then his successor Edgardo Bauza before the World Cup draw in November.
Pizzi has been in charge for the last seven months and insisted the Saudis had shown much improvement since.
“This game should not be a point of reference. We didn’t play the way we planned to. It is left to us to be positive and start thinking about the next match,” he said.
Saudi Arabia’s next Group A encounter is against Uruguay in Rostov on June 20.
“I believe that we came into this tournament well prepared and the players were ready to show that they could play at the World Cup. We did not show today what we have done in our previous games,” Pizzi said.
Just a week ago, Saudi Arabia lost by a respectable 2-1 scoreline to Germany in their final warm-up game in Leverkusen.
But if past history is anything to go by, Pizzi could well become the next coaching casualty of this tournament if Saudi authorities react with the emotive anger displayed in the past.
Saudi Arabia fired Carlos Alberto Parreira after a 4-0 loss to hosts France in the group stages in 1998, even though four years earlier he had won the World Cup with his native Brazil.