Ken Early: Free-scoring Russia give Egypt the runaround

Mohamed Salah scores late penalty after Egypt fell apart just after half-time

 Russia’s  Denis Cheryshev celebrates scoring his team’s second goal during the  World Cup Group A  match against Egypt at the Saint Petersburg Stadium. Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images

Russia’s Denis Cheryshev celebrates scoring his team’s second goal during the World Cup Group A match against Egypt at the Saint Petersburg Stadium. Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images

 

Russia 3 Egypt 1

Russia have become the first team into the knockout phase of the World Cup, overpowering Egypt with another storming display of relentless high-energy running and a barrage of second-half goals.

Mohamed Salah played his first game since going off injured in the Champions League final and he scored from the penalty spot, but the man who just four weeks ago was expected to illuminate the tournament will instead be the first superstar to go home. Aside from his consolation goal against the hosts, the most memorable moment of his World Cup turns out to have been that awkward photo op with the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Salah might not even have had the consolation goal if the Paraguayan referee, Enrique Caceres, had got his way on the decision that ultimately led to the penalty. Salah won it himself, darting past Roman Zobnin who pulled him down just inside the 18-yard line. It was clearly inside, yet Caceres pointed for a free-kick outside the box.

Thankfully, VAR was there to set him right. But there was no VAR intervention a couple of minutes later, when Caceres decided that Egypt’s centre forward Marwad Mohsen had stumbled in the box of his own accord, even though Russia’s ancient centre back Sergey Ignashevich had two brawny hands on him at the time.

You would always be doing well to get two late penalties against the hosts in a World Cup, and it was clear at that stage that Egypt would struggle to score any other way. Mentally and physically, Russia had been stronger.

Whatever else you say about this group of Russian players, all of whom except Denis Cheryshev play in the Russian league, they are exceptionally fit and enthusiastic. At the end of the first round of group matches, Russia had three players in the top 10 for distance covered – impressive considering close to 400 footballers have featured at the World Cup so far.

Their young midfielder Aleksandr Golovin was the World Cup’s top runner in the first round: the 12.7km he covered against Saudi Arabia was nearly half a kilometre more than Denmark’s Christian Eriksen in second, and a full kilometre more than Germany’s Toni Kroos in sixth. His midfield colleague Igor Gazinsky was in fourth place overall.

Curiously enough, there was one other team that also had two players in the top five for distance covered: Egypt, whose defensive midfielder Abdallah Said and left winger Trezeguet were the other two players who broke the 12km mark. A list of players featuring so many marathon men promised an all-action sort of game and that is what it delivered.

Russia alternated between two basic patterns of play throughout. Plan A was to storm down the sides and cross for the 6’ 4” centre forward Artem Dzyuba. Plan B was to run into the middle and shoot from distance. Overall, the approach suggested they believed Egypt’s goalkeeper Mohamed Elshenawy could be counted on for a mistake or two.

Hector Cuper’s Egypt, however, proved a tougher nut to crack than Saudi Arabia. The Argentina coach hates nothing more than getting counter-attacked. When his team attacks down one side, the full back on the other side stays put.

Against Saudi Arabia, all Russia had to do was win the ball anywhere on the pitch and the route to goal was clear, whereas Egypt had men in reserve at the back. On the other hand, Cuper’s reluctance to allow his full backs to support the attack meant his forwards had to make things happen on their own. Salah, who seemed to be trying to stay clear of the sort of situations where defenders could get tight and seek contact, was largely isolated and starved of the ball.

The deadlock was broken in the second minute of the second half. Golovin raided down the right and his cross was punched away by Elshenawy, but only as far as Zobnin, who sent a mishit first-time shot vaguely goalwards. Egypt’s captain Ahmed Fathi, slightly off balance as he wrestled with Dzyuba, tried to clear, but the ball ricocheted off his knee and spun with a Wim Kieft trajectory, landing in the corner of Egypt’s net with horrible inevitability, for the fifth own goal of this World Cup so far.

Twelve minutes later, Cheryshev stabbed home from Mario Fernandes’s low cross. Salah’s reaction to this goal told you everything about what Egypt thought of their prospects of recovery. When Egypt had conceded a late equaliser against Congo in the qualifiers last autumn, Salah first sank to the ground tragically, then roused himself to exhort his team-mates: “We can still do this!” This time he stood motionless near half-way, hands on hips, making no effort to communicate with the others. He looked like he knew it was over.

Egypt’s defenders seemed to want it to be, judging by their desultory efforts to stop Dzyuba battering his way through for Russia’s third just three minutes later. This time Salah did shout for more from his team-mates – now he knew they had to fight to rescue some pride. If they had only believed in themselves enough to start fighting for it a little earlier, who knows what might have happened? But taking on the World Cup hosts is always an intimidating task, and Russia never allowed Egypt any time to settle.

Meanwhile Russia have already achieved respectability, and who knows – maybe they are poised to give their supporters the World Cup of a lifetime, like Germany’s 2006 Sommermärchen. Too good to be true? One thing is for sure: whoever they end up playing in the second round is guaranteed to get a hell of a chasing.

RUSSIA (4-2-3-1): Akinfeev; Fernandes, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Zhirkov (Kudryashov, 86 mins); Zobnin, Gazinsky; Samedov, Golovin, Cheryshev (Kuzyaev, 74 mins); Dzyuba (Smolov, 79 mins). Booked: Smolov.

EGYPT (4-2-3-1): El Shenawy; Fathi, Gabr, Hegazi, Abdelshafy; Hamed, Elneny (Warda, 64 mins); Salah, Said, Trezeguet (Sobhi, 68 mins); Mohsen (Kahraba, 82 mins). Booked: Trezeguet.

Referee: Enrique Caceres (Paraguay).

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