ST PETERSBURG: The build-up to the game was unsurprisingly centered around Mohamed Salah, who was coming back from the left shoulder injury he suffered while playing for Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League final.
Much was expected of the player of the year in England and Salah was certainly a potential star at this World Cup but, five days into the tournament, Egypt needs a miracle to make the knockout stage. And part of the reason is that this was not the Salah that wowed for his club.
Isolated in the first half, with one shot that went narrowly wide his best moment, he missed an excellent chance to equalize in the 56th minute. By the time he did net a penalty, Russia were 3-0 in front and Egypt were searching for nothing more than a consolation.
The injury, caused in a clash with Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos 24 days ago, looked to be troubling Salah, for whom this was his first game since. He wasn’t his usual bustling self and clearly needs time to get into the rhythm. That, though, is something that Salah and Egypt no longer have.
Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov handed 34-year-old Yuri Zhirkov the unenviable task of marking Salah and the full-back came out on top. It means that we won’t be seeing one of the world’s best talents for much longer at this tournament.
Two games. Six points. Eight goals scored, one conceded. This World Cup is going better than even the most optimistic Russian could have dreamt. Talking to fans of the host nation ahead of the tournament, expectations were low, even if Group A didn’t look impossible to qualify from.
But Russia is on the brink of the knockout rounds for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union. It would take a mighty Saudi Arabia upset and a huge swing in goal difference to stop them advancing and their involvement at least until the end of June lends the tournament a boost in terms of local interest.
The confidence flowing through Russia side was palpable. Backed by the home crowd and the boost of a 5-0 demolition vs. Saudi Arabia in the opening game, they went close twice in the sixth minute through Sergey Ignashevich’s header and a shot from Aleksandr Golovin, before Denis Cheryshev shot just over 13 minutes later.
The opening goal, scored two minutes into the second half, came when Golovin scuffed a long-distance shot — or was it across? — into the penalty area and Ahmed Fathi, under pressure from striker Artem Dzyuba, inadvertently diverted the ball into the corner of his own goal.
Emboldened, Russia pounced again with two goals in three minutes to seal the victory. First, a neat Cheryshev finish — his third goal of the tournament — came after from a clever pass from Mario Fernandes, before Dzyuba turned scorer himself.
This isn’t a Russia team that contains overwhelming quality — just one of the starting XI plays outside his home country — and it isn’t ambitious in terms of playing style. But coach Stanislav Cherchesov has them well-organized in a 4-4-1-1 formation and, with Golovin and Cheryshev providing flair and an aging defense holding up, it doesn’t look like a side that will be going down without a battle.
A run to as far as the semifinals goes, a la hosts South Korea in 2002, that remains unlikely, but just making the knockout stage will be deemed a major success.
The draw did not fall kindly for Egypt and playing Uruguay in the opening fixture was always likely to be difficult, even before Salah was hurt. The late concession of a winner to Jose Gimenez stung further.
Egyptian fans have added to this tournament off the field. They came in their droves, excited about their team having one of the very best players in the world. And, with Group A one of the weakest, there was an excellent opportunity to make history.
But if Saudi Arabia doesn’t defeat Uruguay, which would be a major upset, then Egypt will be the first team to be officially unable to make the knockout rounds.