Saudi Arabia proved to be such modest opposition for the 2018 World Cup hosts that you’d be forgiven for suspecting there was something politically sinister at play. Much of Vladimir Putin’s leadership hinges displaying either his or Russia’s strength, usually in an overtly masculine way, through delicately orchestrated pantomimes that to the naked eye appear completely organic and natural events. Opening the World Cup they’re hosting with a 5-0 win over a team they’re actually placed three positions lower than in FIFA’s rankings would certainly fall into that kind of category.
Saudi Arabia too, seemed to be doing their best to lose the curtain raiser for the beautiful game’s greatest month-long show. The longer the game went on, and the larger Russia’s lead grew, the more apathetic their defence and goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayoof became – by the time of Aleksandr Golovin’s stoppage time free kick, the 12-cap glovesman seemed almost content with letting the shot curl into his inside netting, his only real resistance being a few stumbled steps to his left-hand side.
But for a short while, this match did seem genuinely competitive. Saudi Arabia almost managed to get back into the dressing room for the interval having conceded just once from a corner. But then came the moment that would ensure Russia’s opening clash would be far more ceremonious than genuinely challenging.
Substitute Denis Cheryshev, coming on midway through the first half after Alan Dzagoev’s World Cup appeared to end with what looked like a very serious hamstring injury, scooped the ball beyond the trailing leg of one defender, put it on the wrong side of the stretching limb of another and then rifled a finish beyond a clueless Al-Mayoof. Suddenly, Russia were 2-0 up and it became clear the first game of the 2018 World Cup would end up being probably the most one-sided too.
Cheryshev continued to play a big part in that. Russia employed direct tactics throughout and the powerful winger was a key influence, completing two dribbles, winning two aerial duels and twice tackling in dangerous areas to instantly put the Saudi defence under pressure. By the time the 91st minute came, the 27-year-old was in the mood for another and audaciously hit an attempt on the half-volley that once again creamed past Al-Mayoof.
The World Cup can have a transformative effect on the careers of players, and Cheryshev will feel Thursday night’s gorgeous brace will have put him in the shop window – not least because his name has been bandied around the Premier League’s rumour columns before.
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Back in summer 2015, the then-Real Madrid winger was a widely reported target for Brendan Rodgers but a Liverpool transfer never quite materialised and the 12-cap international’s career went on to take a different direction. He made a temporary switch to Valencia, scoring thrice in seven league appearances, and then joined former loan club Villarreal permanently where his progress has admittedly petered out somewhat – last season he made just nine starts in La Liga.
We do know, however, that Liverpool are in the market for another forward this summer. The Nabil Fekir pursuit appears to have fallen through or at the very least been put on hold, while The Guardian recently documented the Reds’ interest in Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri, the Potters’ relegation triggering a release clause in the Swiss playmaker’s contract. Few on Merseyside would dispute that while Liverpool’s first-choice front-line is exceptionally strong, far greater depth is needed if the Reds are to maintain their usual level of verve in attack over a whole campaign in a manner that can have them competing for the Premier League title.
And while Saudi Arabia proved to be incredibly underwhelming opposition, Cheryshev’s brace served as a reminder of the quality he possesses. Industrious, physical, capable of playing anywhere across the forward line and valued at just £2.7million by Transfermarkt, he could solve one of the biggest problems facing this Liverpool squad at incredibly little cost. So, Liverpool fans, should Jurgen Klopp revive Rodgers’ interest in Cheryshev from 2015? Let us know by voting below…