It is never wise to disobey Vladimir Putin and Russia’s players ensured his midweek warning was not ignored as they kicked off the Confederations Cup in style, beating New Zealand with a performance far more emphatic than the 2-0 scoreline suggested.
Putin, fully aware of the discord between fans and arguably the worst Russia team in a generation, went on national television on Thursday and told Stanislav Cherchesov’s players to shape up, sharpish.
“Fans and those who love Russian football expect better results from our national team,” said the president. “We all hope that the guys play with full commitment, like real warriors and athletes, to at least please the fans with their effort to win.”
If the message was not crystal clear for the host team, Putin was in attendance in St Petersburg to ensure first-hand his words were heeded.
After addressing the crowd at the end of another dismal opening ceremony, Putin sat back alongside FIFA president Gianni Infantino and expected to be entertained.
The pressure was on and, to the surprise of many, Russia delivered, dominating from the outset.
Viktor Vasin hit the post, Dmitry Poloz saw a stabbed effort cleared off the line while New Zealand goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic made numerous saves to keep the scoreline blank.
With Putin no doubt starting to shift uneasily in his seat, Russia finally broke the deadlock after 31 minutes – Denis Glushakov’s delicate chip over the advancing Marinovic bundled over the line with FIFA crediting unfortunate New Zealand defender Michael Boxall with the final touch.
The one-way traffic continued after the break, Marinovic denying Poloz and Aleksandr Erokhin with a fine double save.
The New Zealand keeper made another great stop from Poloz after a swift Russia counter-attack, while Alexander Samedov curled over from a free-kick as Russia looked to put the result beyond doubt.
And Fedor Smolov sealed victory with 21 minutes remaining, finishing simply from six yards after starting a move that led to the hapless Boxall failing to clear Samedov’s threatening right-wing cross.
— #ConfedCup (@FIFAcom) June 17, 2017
Despite the victory, and the largely impressive nature of it, no one should get carried away for Cherchesov has an almighty job on.
Key figures such as Alan Dzagoev, Artem Dzyuba and Roman Zobnin are absent from the Confederations Cup through injury while veterans Vasili Berezutski and Sergei Ignashevich have retired.
It leaves him exposed with a squad shorn of experience and class but if they can get out of a group that also includes Mexico and European champions Portugal it will show progress ahead of the main event next summer when the world’s best come to Russia.
For Putin, the World Cup is an opportunity to showcase the country to a global audience. For that, he needs a largely disillusioned and disinterested Russian public – as seen by the large swathes of empty seats on opening day – to be fully on-board.
Bigger tests await – both in the short and long-term – but this was a very small step in the right direction.
Even Vladimir smiled at the final whistle.
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