Pitch-perfect Russian victory

Russia's Fedor Smolov scoring his team's second goal against New Zealand in the opening match of the Confederations Cup on Saturday. The match ended 2-0 in favour of the Russians and they will face a tougher test against Euro 2016 champions Portugal
Russia's Fedor Smolov scoring his team's second goal against New Zealand in the opening match of the Confederations Cup on Saturday. The match ended 2-0 in favour of the Russians and they will face a tougher test against Euro 2016 champions Portugal in Moscow on Wednesday.PHOTO: REUTERS

Smooth win at St Petersburg Stadium a boost for the venue ahead of next year's World Cup

ST PETERSBURG • Russia breathed a sigh of relief on Saturday after its football team won the opening match of the Confederations Cup and the country demonstrated that one of its most problematic World Cup pitches was fit for international matches.

Russia beat New Zealand 2-0 at the St Petersburg Stadium in front of 50,251 people, including President Vladimir Putin and Fifa president Gianni Infantino.

"The fact the leader of the country came to the match is an additional positive, but it is also an additional responsibility," said Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov.

Although Russia were under pressure to perform well on home soil after slipping to a record-low 63rd in Fifa's world rankings this month, the nation faced even more scrutiny over issues off the pitch in the run-up to the two-week tournament.

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The 68,000-seat St Petersburg Stadium will be a flagship venue at next year's World Cup. But its decade-long construction has been marred by corruption allegations and delays.

A new pitch had to be hastily laid before Saturday's kick-off after uprooted chunks of grass and bare spots on the field spoilt the first match held at the venue in April.

It survived without noticeable damage.

"I don't know how it was to play on, but judging by the game it seemed the quality (of the pitch) was rather good. It allowed us to play," Cherchesov said.

The win against New Zealand was comfortable, and the team played some fluent attacking football at times.

But anything other than a convincing win against the New Zealanders would have caused major worries for Russia, and the team will face a much sterner test when they take on Portugal in Moscow on Wednesday.

Mexico are the other team in Russia's group in the eight-team tournament.

"People can see the national team have spirit, and are like a family, and maybe that's why our performances have got better," said striker Fedor Smolov, who scored the second goal after the first was credited as an own goal by New Zealand defender Michael Boxall.

Today, world champions Germany will pit an inexperienced line-up against Australia in their tournament opener with striker Timo Werner anticipating a robust challenge from the Socceroos.

With an average age of just 24 years and four months, and a combined total of 179 international appearances, Germany have the most youthful squad of the eight Confederation Cup teams.

"We don't know how fit we are after a long and hard season," said Werner, 21. "Now comes an unpleasant game in which the Australians will try, with their physiques and toughness, to take us on. But we have a duty to win the three points. We need to get a quick goal and then exert some dominance."

Australia shocked a below-strength Germany 2-1 in 2011 and drew 2-2 with them two years ago.

However, the Socceroos have arrived in Russia on the back of a narrow 3-2 World Cup qualifying win over Saudi Arabia earlier this month despite a 4-0 hammering by Brazil in a friendly in Melbourne.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 19, 2017, with the headline 'Pitch-perfect Russian victory'. Print Edition | Subscribe