Finally, after years of preparation, the first ball was kicked to declare the 2018 FIFA World Cup open and what a game it turned out to be as host country Russia massacred Saudi Arabia 5-0.
Russia quickly off the mark
Being the first game, we cannot read too much into it. I noticed that the rhythm was not there in the beginning with a lot of misplaced passes. The positive is that Russia won handsomely. It gives the fans something to cheer about and sustains the interest of everybody when the host country do well in a competition.
Saudi had more possession but couldn’t make it count. I suspect maybe they were fasting which could be responsible for their fatigue but Russia got stronger as the game wore on and were able to score more goals.
What Russia’s win portend for Egypt
Egypt, one of Africa’s five representatives, will play their first game on Friday against Uruguay but their mind will definitely be on the next game against Russia on June 19th. They have to ensure that they stop either one of Uruguay or Russia and if they cannot do it in the first match, they must do it against the hosts or else they will be on the early flight home.
I think Egypt will pose a stronger opposition to Russia and Uruguay. They have a better team, with all due respect to Saudi Arabia, so I expect them to do better. Fortunately they would have rounded up the fasting so they should be at their best against Uruguay on Friday.
Russia laying down early marker?
We have not seen other teams play so it is too early to predict how far Russia will go. Yes, they are in a strong place because one more win will see them qualify for the next round but it’s not usually as easy as it sounds.
They will be brimming with confidence and feeling high but we shouldn’t think they are home and dry just yet. If they lose the second game, they will be under massive pressure which means they must get a positive result in the last game and this will change the complexion of the competition.
Fighting for pole position
On paper, Uruguay are favoured to win the group but it will depend on how they start against Egypt. I’m sure the Egyptians will not roll over for any of the teams in the group so, if Uruguay must win, they have to work for it. But the group is going to be a very tough one to get out of. To be sure, nobody is eliminated yet but Russia have their noses in front. They have three points and five goals in the kitty and this is a massive advantage for them. They are on a roll now. Uruguay and Egypt both know they cannot afford to drop points when they play because that would further consolidate the hold of Russia on the group. So that makes it very interesting and is sure to bring out the best in all the teams, including Saudi Arabia who must also win against Uruguay in their second game to stay in the competion. Nothing is cast in stone yet so we cannot say who will win the group.
Leon Balogun Is Massive Loss
News filtered in that Super Eagles defender Leon Balogun is a major doubt for the game against Croatia. Undoubtedly, he’s one of our best players for his commitment to the team but, strangely, news of his injury did not come as a surprise. We all know his injury history and how he battled to be fit all through last season, even playing while not fully fit. It shows how committed he is and it will be a massive blow for Nigeria.
However, the show must go on. Injury is part of the game. The coach must have prepared for that contingency and, in Kenneth Omeruo, we have a worthy replacement for Balogun. I think it speaks to Balogun’s quality that he’s kept Omeruo on the bench all these while and now the ball is in Kenneth’s court to step up and ensure we don’t feel the absence of Balogun by putting on a match-winning performance.
It will not be an acceptable excuse to say we didn’t play well against Croatia because Balogun was missing. There’s a reason FIFA allows teams to come to competitions with 23 players. You are expected to cover all positions in case of injury. If one is injured, another one should be there to stand in for him. So, while I wish Balogun a quick recovery so that he can return to the team, I want to wish Omeruo all the luck he will need to do a fine job on Saturday. And, to the Super Eagles, I say all the best. Up Nigeria!
Mutiu Adepoju, a former Nigerian international, attended three World Cups with the Super Eagles from 1994 -2002