ST PETERSBURG: There were two strikers on either side, both reportedly attracting the attention of English Premier League clubs when Russia and New Zealand came together in the FIFA Confederations Cup opener at the Krevstovsky Stadium on Saturday.
On one side was Fedor Smolov, the 27-year-old Russian hitman linked to Arsenal after being the top scorer of the Russian League in each of the past two seasons with FC Krasnodar.
On the other side was Chris Wood, the 25-year-old New Zealander who is sought by newly-promoted Huddersfield Town, having scored 27 goals in the second-division Championship for Leeds United last season.
It was the former who made the difference. Smolov had a hand in the opening goal and sealed the victory for the Confederation Cup hosts with a second as Russia, playing in front of president Vladimir Putin, opened their Group ‘A’ campaign with a comfortable 2-0 victory.
In a group containing Mexico and Portugal as the other two teams, it could be crucial. Russia have something to build on as they try to raise home hopes before the World Cup next year.
The dominance they showed against New Zealand is the dominance the Russians would want them to show against the likes of European champions Portugal, who they next face on Wednesday.
Putin had asked Stanislas Cherchesov’s men to “play like warriors” and they came out ready for battle in front of about 50,000 fans in Russia’s second city.
New Zealand had to clear the ball off the line twice but they weren’t so lucky the third time around when Denis Glushakov was set free in a move involving Smolov and Dmitry Polov just past the half hour mark.
Glushakov dinked the ball over goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic, before being in a three-man race with two New Zealand defenders who were rushing back to clear the ball off the line. As they slid, one of them — Michael Boxall — turned it in to send the Krevstovsky wild with delight.
“They [Russia] had to start well in front of their home fans and they did,” New Zealand captain Wood told Dawn after the match. “They are a top quality side and we were under pressure from the start.”
Marinovic kept New Zealand in the game with a few saves but it was pretty evident that the Oceania champions were so rocked by Russia’s furious opening that the goalkeeper and their defence only tried to find their towering talisman Wood via long balls.
It was Wood’s Russian counterpart who scored, however, Smolov slipping past the New Zealand defence to get on the return of a one-two with Alexander Samedov and wrap up the win with a tap-in about 20 minutes from time.
Wood’s New Zealand came close to scoring with two back-to-back chances with 10 minutes to go but Russia held on, leaving the New Zealand skipper wishing for more.
“We’ll try to be better than this,” Wood said after their easiest game on paper, with upcoming games against CONCACAF champions Mexico before a showdown with Portugal.
“We played them [Mexico] nine months ago and only lost 2-1 while having loads of chances.”
Asked about his team’s chances in the tournament, he said: “We’re confident we can do well.”
New Zealand will need to do very well now to have a chance of progressing from the group stage. For that, though, they need to do something they have never done at the Confederations Cup: win. On their fourth appearance at the tournament, and after 10 matches, their best result is a draw.
Russia, meanwhile, have got off the mark at the first time of asking. Competing in the ‘Tournament of Champions’ as hosts of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, this victory can set the tone for them for a good run at the tournament, which is a dress rehearsal for next year’s global showpiece.
And maybe, at the World Cup.
Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2017