Moscow (AFP) – Russia were handed a World Cup reality check on Monday, losing 3-0 to Uruguay as Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and 2010 winners Spain look to lock down spots in the last 16.
The host nation rode a wave of national euphoria in their first two matches, sweeping aside Saudi Arabia and Egypt despite being initially written off as no-hopers but could not keep the magic alive against the South Americans.
An early free-kick from Barcelona’s Luis Suarez, an own goal from Denis Cheryshev and a late strike from Edinson Cavani sealed top spot in Group A for Uruguay, with Russia through to the knockout stages as runners-up.
The Russians — who must now regroup before their last-16 match against the winners of Group B — were rocked by a red card for Igor Smolnikov about 10 minutes from half-time in Samara when they were already trailing 2-0.
“Obviously, the first few matches you’re tense and don’t want to make any mistakes or lose,” said man-of the-match Suarez.
“One mistake can be very expensive. Today we came to the pitch with a different attitude and perspective and that’s made the pressure better. That’s what we saw on the pitch.”
Disappointed Russian coach Stanislav Cherchesov said it was better to lose heavily now than in future games, saying his players had shown nerves for the first time but were psychologically prepared for the knockout stages.
“The outcome is very simple. We did what we had to do,” he said. “But you cannot start a game of this level with such a mistake — we gave up a goal.
“Uruguay then started playing their type of football. And then we got a red card.”
In the other match in Group A, Saudi Arabia beat Mohamed Salah’s Egypt 2-1 in Volgograd but the main talking point was Egypt goalkeeper Essam El Hadary becoming the oldest player ever to appear in a World Cup.
El Hadary, who is 45 years and 161 days old, smashed the record set by Colombia goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, who was aged 43 years and three days when he played against Japan in Brazil in 2014.
When he made his international debut in 1996, Ramadan Sobhy, who came on a substitute, was not even born.
The veteran goalkeeper produced a stunning save from a Fahad al-Muwallad penalty after Salah had given Egypt the lead but could not keep out another spot kick by Salman al-Faraj in first-half injury time.
The Saudis ended a dispiriting run of 12 World Cup matches without a win, recording their first victory at a finals since 1994 with a last-gasp winner from Salem al-Dawsari but it was not enough to stop them going home.
– Spain, Portugal target knockouts –
The matches in Group B will also be completed on Monday, with Spain, European champions Portugal and Iran vying for the top two spots. Bottom side Morocco cannot qualify.
Spain crashed out in spectacular fashion in the group stage four years ago in Brazil but are on course to reach the knockout phase in Russia despite sacking their coach on the eve of the tournament.
They require a point against Morocco in Kaliningrad to secure qualification, and new coach Fernando Hierro promised they would not underestimate a North African side playing for pride.
“We can’t afford to relax…. We need to be awake with our eyes open and be aware that Morocco aren’t going to give anything away,” warned Hierro, who replaced Julen Lopetegui a day before the tournament started.
Portugal meet former coach Carlos Queiroz and Iran in Saransk. Ronaldo’s side will advance with a draw, but a win for Iran would see the European champions or Spain suffer a shock exit.
“Both teams have something to win and also to lose, neither has more to win than the other,” said Portugal boss Fernando Santos.
Ronaldo, who looks the favourite to win a sixth world player of the year award, will be desperate to top the goalscoring charts in Russia.
The Real Madrid superstar has slipped behind Harry Kane in the race for the Golden Boot after the England player grabbed a hat-trick against Panama to take his tally to five.