In retrospect, it may have been foolish to expect Russia to have a meek performance at its own World Cup.
While Russia was given a good chance to advance from a weak Group A, you would be hard-pressed to find anybody who would have foreseen its offensive explosion. In a tournament marked by mostly underwhelming efforts from the tournament favorites, Russia’s eight goals in its first two matches stand in stark contrast to a group stage that has thus far been in short supply of dominance.
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You’d be forgiven for not having a great read of the Russians before this year’s tournament. One of the perks of hosting the World Cup is that you aren’t required to go through the qualification process, and as such the only yardstick we had going in was a smattering of friendly matches played over a few months in the run-up to the tournament. Russia’s record in those friendlies was not at all good. It lost to qualifying nations Brazil (3-0) and France (3-1) before coming up empty against Austria (1-0) and managing a draw against Turkey (1-1).
Despite all of this, Russia has two things going for it. The first, obviously, is home-field advantage. Only one host nation (South Africa in 2010) has failed to qualify for the knockout round. The second thing going for Russia was being drawn into easily the kindest group in the tournament. I intend no disrespect to Saudi Arabia or Egypt, but despite a lackluster showing in its tournament warmup matches, Russia was always heavily favored to win its first two matches and advance.
Before the tournament, projections by FiveThirtyEight had Russia with a 39 percent chance to win the group, a 34 percent chance to finish second and a 73 percent chance to advance. After Tuesday’s 3-1 drubbing of Egypt, it had a 66 percent chance to win the group and a greater than 99 percent chance to make the round of 16.
You might wonder why Russia’s odds have gotten so much better if every result has gone more or less as predicted in Group A. The answer: The tremendous plus-7 goal differential the hosts have amassed is the first tiebreaker should it finish level in points with Uruguay.
The secret to Russia’s early success has been twofold: It has created quality chances, and it has scored a remarkable amount of those chances (seven goals on 24 shots, 29.2 percent).
Against Egypt, Russia benefited from a wildly deflected own goal but also managed to create two clear-cut chances around the penalty spot and converted them both. Egypt didn’t put a shot on target except for the penalty that Mohamed Salah scored for the Pharaohs’ first goal of the tournament.
In the tournament’s opening match against Saudi Arabia, Russia, no doubt buoyed by the occasion, was relentless in attack, firing seven shots on target and scoring five. It converted nearly every big opportunity that was presented and added two unlikely goals from distance to pad that all-important goal differential.
If there has been anything surprising about Russia, other than its incredible conversion rate, it’s that all of this has been done almost entirely without first-choice playmaker Alan Dzagoev, who limped off the field in the 24th minute of the opening match. This forced Manager Stanislav Cherchesov’s hand, and he brought on Villarreal’s Denis Cheryshev to play out wide, pushing Aleksandr Golovin to the center to fill in for Dzagoev. Golovin finished the opening match with a goal and two assists, and Cheryshev struck twice. Cherchesov left those two in place against Egypt, and Cheryshev scored again.
Next up is Uruguay, with the top spot in the group likely at stake. Based on talent, the South American side should easily beat Saudi Arabia on Wednesday in its second match, leaving it tied with Russia for the top spot in Group A. Though Russia entered Wednesday with a big advantage in goal differential, it’s not hard to see Uruguay, led by FC Barcelona’s Luis Suarez and Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani, making up a good bit of that against a leaky Saudi Arabian defense. This will be by far each team’s biggest test so far.
It’s hard to see Russia maintaining this level beyond the group stages. Even if it wins Group A, it will likely face Spain or Portugal in the round of 16. History would suggest that the host team will have a hard time maintaining its outstanding goal-scoring form deeper into the tournament. Still, the World Cup wouldn’t be exciting without the potential for huge upsets (and we’ve seen a few eyebrow-raising results already).
Regardless of how this ends, Russia and its fans can be very proud of the show they’ve put on.
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