The 2018 FIFA World Cup has really only just begun, but patterns have already emerged and certain players have already had heady impacts for their countries. The most of games any one team has played is two, so to draw concrete conclusions would be foolish.
But with how important point differential is in the group stage, a few teams have already put themselves in prime position to advance. One of those countries is Russia, who have more than impressed as hosts this World Cup.
Russia infamously entered the 2018 World Cup as FIFA’s lowest ranked country , and though they were to open against a similarly paltry Saudi Arabia, there wasn’t much or any optimism surrounding the host country.
Then, they came out and absolutely embarrassed Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the opening match. Russia dominated Saudi both with size and athleticism, and that showed up in the stat sheet in more ways than one. Russia had 14 shots to Saudi’s six. Russia had more corner kicks (6), big chances created (3) and aerials won (37), too.
Russia’s victory over Saudi really didn’t mean much on its own, though. No one would have been surprised had either team won or lost. It was the margin of victory that shocked so many. After their first game, Russia already had an impressive goal difference.
Egypt, then, served as a small boost in competition for Russia, a team universally regarded as better than Saudi if only because of Mohamed Sallah. The Egyptian striker didn’t play in his country’s opener, a narrow 1-0 defeat to Uruguay, but he was back in time to face the hosts.
It really didn’t matter. Russia won a game by multiple goals again, downing the Egyptians 3-1 in St. Petersburg. Salah scored in the 73rd minute, but by that time the game was over, and Russia’s advancement to the knockout stage was practically guaranteed.
Given, Russia play in Group A, arguably the group with the lowest quality of teams in the tournament. Also given, their wins came against Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two countries that contribute to Group A’s lowly stigma. But in the World Cup, more often than not you see games that end 1-0 and 1-1, not the larger score lines Russia have enjoyed.
No matter what happens in Russia’s final group game against Uruguay on Monday, they’ll definitely be involved in the knock-out stages. Does a team that was almost unanimously disregarded have any fighting chance of even winning a match past the group stage?
What’s as important as anything here is what country they’ll draw in the second round. Russia and Uruguay are tied for first in Group A with six points each, so it’s safe to say the winner of that match will finish with the top spot. However, Russia have a distinct advantage because if it’s a draw, they will be first because their current goal differential is plus seven — Uruguay’s is just plus two.
Barring a sudden change of events, the winning countries of Group B will be Spain and Portugal. This is not a surprise — it was pretty much a given from the start — and one of these teams will play Russia in the second round.
Unfortunately for Russia, this is where their road will almost undoubtedly end. Russia have already defied the odds by amassing a goal differential of plus seven through two games, so expecting this kind of an upset would be foolish. Maybe being the host country in 2018 comes with some magic. Or maybe not.
But it’s still pertinent to discuss what has brought Russia to this point. It doesn’t hurt to have a forward who currently ranks along the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Costa in scoring.
Denis Cheryshev’s three goals have inspired Russia’s fairytale story thus far. He’s been a massive reason Russia have raced in to such a lead, but it hasn’t come without the help of a few key teammates.
The 22-year-old Aleksandr Golovin has emerged as one of the best distributors in Russia, racking up a World-Cup leading two assists and amassing a pass success percentage of 74.4.
Russia will face long odds once they advance, but nothing can change what they’ve already accomplished, and right now they’re playing as a cohesive unit nobody really saw coming.