Stanislav Cherchesov’s team had not won in their past seven matches and had been criticised from all sides, including a series of barbed comments from Russian president Vladimir Putin.
But in front of a largely partisan crowd of 78,011 at the Luzhniki Stadium they never looked in danger against a naïve Green Falcons’ side that seemed only too willing to gift possession to their opponent.
A completely unmarked Yuri Gazinsky headed his first goal for Russia before substitute Denis Cheryshev evaded several weak challenges and smashed home at the near post close to half-time.
The tempo slowed and the atmosphere flattened after the restart, giving the whole thing the feel of a friendly match.
But substitute Artem Dzyuba illuminated a match of often dubious quality with a precise header to extend his team’s lead just minutes after replacing Fedor Smolov.
And as the match moved into injury time the impressive Cheryshev smashed home with a crisp strike into the top corner before the superb Aleksandr Golovin curled a free-kick around the wall.
It put the seal on a sensational and unexpected start to the World Cup for the hosts – and gives them a real chance of qualifying from the group stage.
Let me entertain you
Singer Robbie Williams performed during a colourful opening ceremony before the match, marking the start of a feast of football that will see 64 games played at 12 venues over the next month.
Williams went through several of his biggest hits in front of a largely appreciative crowd that featured football fans from all over the world as well as a large Russian contingent.
A lengthy address from Putin was followed by a short speech from Fifa president Gianni Infantino – but eventually the words ended and the football finally began.
Punching above their weight
Russia went into the match ranked 70th in the world, three places below their opponents, and with a side ravaged by injury problems.
Key forward Alexander Kokorin plus defenders Georgi Dzhikiya and Viktor Vasin have all succumbed to knee injuries this year – with the lack of options seeing Cherchesov dragging 38-year-old centre back Sergei Ignashevich out of retirement and into the side.
It had led the Moscow Times to proclaim the team was “doomed to fail”, while another sports writer said only “a miracle” could save Russia.
But they were the vastly superior team on a mild Moscow evening, repeatedly overrunning opponents who were simply unable to handle their physical threat and determination.
The impressive Golovin provided the crosses for the headed goals and Roman Zobnin went close with a low strike that Abdullah Al-Mayoof saved low down.
Cheryshev was excellent too, running down the left flank with a real sense of purpose, as Russia put in a performance that gives them a renewed sense of purpose as they try to get out of a group that will provide much sterner tests against Egypt and Uruguay.
There was nobody of the calibre of Mohamed Salah and Luis Suarez on the pitch on Thursday, and the ageing Ignashevich can expect a much rougher ride in the next two games.
And there was one sour note for the home side when Alan Dzagoev limped off with what looked like a hamstring injury midway through the first half.
But on a night when they were under serious pressure to deliver, Russia got their campaign up and running in emphatic fashion.
All uphill from here.
Thursday’s match was crucial for each side’s aspirations of qualifying from the group and the result leaves Juan Antonio Pizzi’s Saudi Arabia with a huge task in front of them.
They made an ageing and out-of-form Russia look like world beaters and seemed to be arguing among themselves from the early stages as they were repeatedly caught out of position.
There was no finer example of this than Russia’s opener, as two completely unmarked players stood side by side as they awaited Golovin’s cross.
Pizzi is the team’s third coach since they qualified for the World Cup and, despite numerous training camps and plenty of positives in narrow recent defeats against Italy and Germany, they seemed woefully undercooked.
Mohammed Al Sahlawi headed narrowly wide with a rare first-half attack and a decent cross shortly after the restart eluded both Al Sahlawi and Taiseer Al Jassam at the far post but they were isolated moments of intent.
In their first World Cup campaign since 2006, and searching for their first win at a World Cup since 1994, they will need to show a vast improvement if they are to take anything home from this competition.
Man of the match – Aleksandr Golovin (Russia)
He scored the fifth goal, provided two assists and showed some real quality in ppossess
Saudi Arabia’s winless record at World Cups continues – the stats
- Russia’s victory means that the host nation has never lost their opening match in any of the 21 editions of the World Cup (won 16, drew six – there were two hosts in 2002).
- Russia (5-0) recorded the second biggest victory by a host nation in their opening match at a World Cup, after Italy v USA in 1934 (7-1).
- Russia scored more than twice as many goals in this game (five) as they did in the entire 2014 World Cup finals over three games (two).
- Saudi Arabia have not won any of their past 11 games at the World Cup (drew two, lost nine). Their last win in the competition dates back to the group stages of the 1994 edition (1-0 v Belgium).
- This is Saudi Arabia’s fifth World Cup finals tournament and the fifth in which they have failed to win their opening match (drew one, lost four).
- Saudi Arabia have conceded 14 headed goals at the World Cup since their debut in 1994, that is five more than any other team over that period (USA – nine).
- Yuri Gazinskiy’s goal for Russia came from the first shot on target at the 2018 World Cup.
- Gazinskiy’s strike marked the first time that the opening goal of a World Cup tournament has been a header since 1990 (Francois Omam-Biyik for Cameroon v Argentina).
- Russia’s Denis Cheryshev became the first substitute to score a goal in the opening match of a World Cup tournament.
- Both Gazinskiy (seventh appearance) and Cheryshev (12th appearance) scored their first goals for Russia in this match.
- Artem Dzyuba scored for Russia just 89 seconds after coming off the bench; the quickest goal by a substitute at a World Cup since Marcin Zewlakow for Poland v USA in 2002.
- In this game, Sergei Ignashevich became the oldest player to ever appear in a World Cup match for Russia/USSR (38 years & 335 days old).
‘A big and unexpected defeat’ – what they said
Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov said: “Sometimes it’s a source of joy for the fans, sometimes less so. However, we are honest in what we are doing. I was relaxed yesterday and I’m relaxed today because I know my players. It is a pleasure to work with them.
“Every coach depends on the players, this is why I am relaxed. Why do I have to be stressed?
“I would like to underscore that we are grateful to our squad with how they fulfilled our goals, how they played in a relaxed game under the pressure stemming from this being an opening match.
“But Egypt will be a different game, city and stadium, We need to meticulously prepare ourselves.
“We have made the first step, then there is a stronger opponent. We don’t know if Mohamed Salah is going to play [for Egypt]. With him or without him it is a respectably strong team, with him stronger obviously. It is just a different adversary.”
Russia’s Denis Cheryshev, who scored twice, said:“There are no words to express what I’m feeling right now.
“I could never have dreamed of anything like this. I’m happy we’ve won but we shouldn’t stop there.”
Saudi Arabia coach Juan Antonio Pizzi said: “It was a tough game and we suffered a big and unexpected defeat.
“Russia did very well, while we did not appear to be in good shape. I don’t believe that the opposing team has done anything to surprise us – I think that a poor performance explains the result.
“As for our strategy, we must change. We have to forget about it now and think of the next match. I have confidence in these players.”