MOSCOW (AP) — Inspired by the home crowd in the opening match of the World Cup, Russia ended a 16-year wait for victory.
Substitute Denis Cheryshev scored two goals Thursday to lead the host nation over Saudi Arabia 5-0 in Group A with President Vladimir Putin watching from the stands alongside FIFA president Gianni Infantino.
It was Russia’s first World Cup win since 2002 and ended a seven-game winless run overall — the national team’s longest winless streak in 20 years.
Yuri Gazinsky initially put Russia ahead with a header from Alexander Golovin’s cross when the Saudis failed to clear a corner in the 12th minute. Gazinsky charged forward to meet the ball as Saudi player Taisir Al-Jassam stumbled, leaving him a simple finish.
Putin and Infantino smiled and shrugged as they sat next to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the VIP box. Putin then reached over to shake the prince’s hand.
Cheryshev chipped the ball over two Saudi defenders in the 43rd minute and shot over goalkeeper Abdullah Al Muaiouf’s right side. He later chipped the ball in for Russia’s fourth goal in stoppage time.
After Cheryshev’s first goal, Artyom Dzyuba made an instant impact off the bench to make it 3-0 in the 71st with a header from Golovin’s cross. Golovin added the fifth from a free kick.
Following a lavish opening ceremony featuring British singer Robbie Williams, Putin welcomed visiting fans and promised Russia would be a “hospitable and friendly” host.
In a World Cup first, the video assistant referee system was available for the match between the tournament’s lowest-ranked teams, though it wasn’t used.
The Saudis, who last won a match at the World Cup in 1994, failed to get a single shot on target.
The win for Russia is a big boost to its hopes of advancing, but it will still face a tough test against Egypt on June 19 and Uruguay six days later.
But with the five goals against the Saudis, a draw could be enough against either of its two remaining opponents.
Saudi Arabia’s route to the knockout round is much more difficult. The Saudis will face Uruguay on June 20 and then Egypt on June 25. Egypt and Uruguay play Friday in Yekaterinburg.
Key to success
Russia’s players were significantly taller and heavier than the Saudis, a help when challenging for the ball and when the penalty area was crowded.
That had an effect on Gazinsky’s goal, which came after the Saudis struggled to clear a Russian corner, and the header from the tall and stocky Dzyuba.
One concern for Russia, however, is that creative midfielder Alan Dzagoev appears to have injured a hamstring in the first half.
Saudi Arabia sent some players to the Spanish league for experience this season but they didn’t get much playing time while there.