ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — If every host nation could handpick its opponent for the opening game of a major tournament, New Zealand would be close to the top of the list, and Russia did not pass up the opportunity to make a winning start to the Confederations Cup against Oceania’s champions.
In front of Vladimir Putin, Russia cruised to a 2-0 victory in the $1.4 billion Krestovsky Stadium. So emphatic was the host’s performance that the only negative was that they did not win by six or seven goals. Yet the problem with swatting aside minnows is that it rarely offers genuine pointers for the future or gives a coach the opportunity to gauge the progress and development of his players.
But a win is a win, and Russia certainly needed one in front of President Putin after his insistence earlier this week that Stanislav Cherchesov’s team had to raise their game as the World Cup looms on the horizon. But it will be against Portugal, rather than Anthony Hudson’s All Whites, that a truer picture of Russia’s prospects will emerge when they meet in Moscow on Wednesday.
New Zealand, currently 95th in the FIFA world rankings, secured their place at the Confederations Cup by defeating Papua New Guinea — on penalties — in last year’s OFC Championship. If they are to return to Russia for the World Cup in 2018, they must overcome the Solomon Islands in a two-legged playoff before facing the fifth-placed team in the South American qualifiers (currently Argentina) in November.
New Zealand will need a sporting miracle to qualify for the World Cup, which is why Russia will not get too excited about a 2-0 victory over them. But having gone into Saturday with just three victories in their last 15 games, the Russians simply had to win. They are a team weakened by the injury-enforced absences of Alan Dzagoev and Artem Dzyuba, not to mention the international retirements of Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutsky. Against higher-calibre opposition, their lack of depth and experience is likely to have told, but this was a good day for Russia and one they can build upon.
Goal scorers Denis Glushakov and Fedor Smolov both impressed, as did the CSKA Moscow youngster Aleksandr Golovin in midfield. The sight of 33-year-old Yury Zhirkov powering down the left flank for 90 minutes, combined with the energy of the greying Alexander Samedov, 32, emphasised the spirit within the team, if not the youth.
Cherchesov’s 3-5-2 formation proved too strong for New Zealand’s limited team, and the passing and movement of the hosts may even have earned the admiration of Putin, who watched from the stands alongside FIFA president Gianni Infantino after delivering a stirring pre-match address.
“When the president of the country comes out to make a speech, it is an advantage but also an additional responsibility,” Cherchesov said. “But we have coped with our task, so let’s play on.”
But did Putin give Cherchesov and his players a personal seal of approval after the game?
“Putin has left unfortunately,” admitted Cherchesov, with an air of resignation.
Russia set out to start the game strongly, and they did so, with Golovin seeing a shot saved and New Zealand twice needing to clear goal-bound efforts from Poloz and Viktor Vasin in the opening 10 minutes. The pattern of play barely altered, with Russia creating 17 efforts on goal but converting just twice.
New Zealand coach Hudson, whose team face Mexico next in Sochi on Wednesday, was keen to take the positives from the game, insisting that playing on such a stage was only beneficial to a group of players whose competitive action typically extends to qualifiers against the likes of Tahiti, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea.
“We have to be very single-minded and tough,” Hudson said. “We know this tournament for us is an incredible opportunity … to keep improving and be ready for the World Cup qualifiers.
“We are slightly deflated, but we were playing a very, very strong Russia team. We don’t get a lot of opportunities to play top teams, so this was an unbelievable experience. They were full of running, were sharp and quick. We knew the scenario we were facing.”
For Russia, ranked 63rd in the world — between Scotland and Albania — it was a case of laying a platform and easing the pressure, although Cherchesov was insistent that pressure is not an issue for him and his squad.
“Does it take the pressure off? Pressure is a medical term, when you measure blood pressure, and I have been hearing this for three days,” he said. “There is no pressure on us as a team. The tempo was high, we played a good game and achieved everything we set out for.
“You could see people were nervous, but Russia had to win this first match. New Zealand also wanted to win too, but we have achieved a very good result. Everything has gone well.”
It will only get more difficult for Russia from this point on. But if they manage a similar result against Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal in Moscow, maybe then they can start to get their hopes up.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_