We have now had a look at all 8 teams in Groups A & B. While form in the first match can be misleading – Spain, for instance, lost their first match to Switzerland in 2010 before going on to win the cup – we do get some ideas about the teams.
In the opening match, Saudi Arabia never seemed to be interested in making a contest of the match, and Russia, without really having to try too hard, made merry in spectacular fashion.
For Russia Denis Cheryshev was a revelation. His first goal, and Russia’s second, was a splendid effort, after he had a lucky break, but it was overshadowed by his second, which was simply brilliant. Cheryshev learnt his football in Spain, and was eligible to play for that country, but he chose Russia in 2011. He was not picked to start the opening match this time, but got an early chance when Alan Dzagoev pulled a hamstring and left the pitch in the 24th minute. To say that Cheryshev grabbed his opportunity eagerly would be an understatement. Chance often plays such big roles in our lives.
Another Russian player to impress was 22 year old Aleksandr Golovin, who looked far more mature than his age. He scored the fifth and last goal for Russia with a superb free-kick, but well before that he played a central role in most of Russia’s movements with a commanding performance in midfield. One would love to see how he performs in the forthcoming games, against more competitive opponents.
Artem Dzyuba, another substitute, scored Russia’s third with an impressive header, and looked the part, as did Fyodor Smolov before he was replaced by Dzyuba. The Russian goalkeeper and defence did not have to work too hard, but looked solid and responded adequately whenever they were called upon to do so. The midfield looked fluid and mobile. As they say, well begun is half done, and Russia have certainly begun well.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, looked ordinary, almost right from the beginning. It was a sad night for Asian football. Their midfield lacked ideas and were dominated by their opponents throughout the game, leaving their star striker Al-Sahlawi isolated for the most part. Their defence looked shaky, to say the least. Russia’s first and third goals were from headers, where there not enough presence to disturb the scorers. They will have to improve immensely to put up some opposition in their next two matches.
In the second match of the group, Uruguay beat Egypt with a late goal – a strong header from central defender Jose Gimenez from a set piece. A few minutes before that, Edinson Cavani had rattled the post with a wonderful free-kick. They were definitely the better team, but Egypt did put up a brave show.
For Uruguay, captain Diego Godin was outstanding in defence, along with Gimenez. Martin Caceres and Guillermo Varela seemed solid as full-backs, both in defence and attack. Goalkeeper Fernando Muslera was his usual dependable self when required, which was not very often.
Uruguay started with a youthful midfield, with exciting prospects Rodrigo Betancur (20) and Nahitan Nandez (22) joining the slightly more experienced Giorgion De Arrascaeta (24) and Matias Vecino (26). However, it was only when the more experienced Carlos Sanchez (33) and Cristian Rodriguez (32) replaced Nandez and De Arrascaeta early in the second half that Uruguay finally began to dominate the game. Their star strikers Cavani and Luis Suarez, who lacked proper service in the first half, looked more menacing as a result, and the Egyptian defence got stretched. It will be interesting to see Uruguay’s starting line-up in their next game.
Egypt lost the game eventually, but did more than enough to prove that they are not a one man team. Without their principal striker and superstar Mohamed Salah, they were not expected to trouble the Uruguayans, but time to time they did exactly that. Their defence, superbly led by the more than solid Ahmed Hegazi, did splendidly to neutralise Uruguay’s world class strikers almost throughout the game. Right back captain of the day Ahmed Fathy was also impressive as were centre back Ali Gabr and left back Mohamed Shafy. Goalkeeper Mohamed El-Shenawy, selected somewhat surprisingly ahead of his two vastly more experienced colleagues, stood tall and made some splendid saves, including one from Cavani that was world class.
Egypt’s midfield looked fine, too, where both Tarek Hamed and his second half replacement Sam Morsy sat in front of the defence and frustrated their opponents. Mohamed Elneny was industrious and became a little more adventurous in the second half. On the left, Trezeguet was a constant irritation to the right side of the Uruguayan defence, and made some great runs, especially in the first half, while Amr Warda tried the same on the right, albeit with a little less menace. However, Egypt’s attack lacked the bite that is necessary to break down international defences, especially those as well organised as Uruguay’s. This is where Salah can make a huge difference when he comes in, hopefully in the very next game. As his replacement Marwan Mohsen tried his best, and did keep his opponents vigilant, as did his replacement Kahraba in the second half, but they never looked like scoring.
The next round of matches will see Uruguay take on Saudi Arabia followed Russia against Egypt. Wins for Uruguay and Russia will see both into the knock-out stage, but Saudi Arabia and especially Egypt may have other ideas.
(From the desk of Rajat Subhra Banerjee)