On Thursday the World Cup started with the hosts Russia taking on Saudi Arabia. I managed to get 20 minutes of the game live ona projector screen at the office while I was eating my dinner. Russia thumped the Saudis 5-0 in front of a largely partisan crowd of 78,011 at the Luzhniki Stadium. A completely unmarked Yuri Gazinsky headed his first goal for Russia before substitute Denis Cheryshev evaded several weak challenges and smashed home at the near post close to half-time.
The tempo slowed and the atmosphere flattened after the restart, giving the whole thing the feel of a friendly match. But substitute Artem Dzyuba illuminated a match of often dubious quality with a precise header to extend his team’s lead just minutes after replacing Fedor Smolov. And as the match moved into injury time the impressive Cheryshev smashed home with a crisp strike into the top corner before the superb Aleksandr Golovin curled a free-kick around the wall.
Yesterday I watched two games live – Uruguay struggled to an unimpressive 1-0 win over Egypt and later on at 11:30 pm Cristiano Ronaldo produced one of the great World Cup performances as his dramatic late free-kick earned Portugal a draw with Spain in a classic encounter in Sochi. The Real Madrid forward’s 88th-minute swerving set-piece soared into the top corner to deny the Spanish a much-needed victory at the end of what has been a painful week for them in the south of Russia. Their build-up had been dominated by the shock departure of Julen Lopetegui as boss two days before the tournament started but by the final whistle at the Fisht Olympic Stadium there was only one name on everyone’s lips.
I would go so far as to label this as the match of the tournament (yes even this early on). He had got the opener, too, a penalty in the fourth minute after Nacho felled him in the box, before Diego Costa’s bullying low finish dragged Spain back into the match when they were at their most vulnerable. But just before the break David de Gea made a terrible and uncharacteristic error, fumbling a zipping Ronaldo shot through his gloves and over the line. Another dose of adversity for Spain to deal with.
In between, Morocco lost 0-1 to Iran in a match I chose to skip.