SAINT PETERSBURG, Russian Federation, Jun 14 – Hosts Russia got the World Cup off to a flying start by hammering Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the opening game in Moscow.
Fears that Russia may become just the second host nation to fail to qualify from the group stages have been quashed for now, but their next opponents Egypt were given a huge boost by the return to fitness of Mohamed Salah ahead of their clash with Uruguay on Friday.
Friday’s standout fixture, though, comes in Sochi where a shell-shocked Spain, still rocking from the sacking of Julen Lopetegui, take on Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal.
Here, AFP Sports looks at three things we learned from day one of the 2018 World Cup.
Russia turn up in time
High on the list of Russia’s pre-tournament concerns was whether they had the team to capture a nation’s imagination.
Stanislav Cherchesov’s men hadn’t won in seven games stretching back eight months, sparking fears that on the field, the month-long festival of football would largely pass the hosts by.
Instead, they chose the perfect time to find their form with plenty of help from a woeful Saudi Arabia side that now must face up to the firepower of Luis Suarez, Edison Cavani and Salah.
Denis Cheryshev was the hero the nation was crying out for, scoring twice, including a stunning effort that curled into the top corner with the outside of his left foot, as Russia’s party got off to the best possible start.
Salah fit to feature
Egyptians worst fears as they saw Salah depart in tears from the Champions League final three weeks ago won’t be realised as the Liverpool star will be fit to play against Uruguay on Friday.
Egypt coach Hector Cuper said he could assure fans “almost 100 percent” Salah will play some part in Yekaterinburg.
Salah carried Egypt to their first World Cup since 1990, scoring five of their eight goals in qualifying, including a dramatic stoppage time penalty against Congo to seal their place in Russia.
Spain move on from Lopetegui sacking
Real Madrid and Spain captain Sergio Ramos was the man who inflicted the shoulder injury that put Salah’s World Cup at risk.
However, far from his usual role as aggressor on the field, Ramos had to act as peacemaker on Thursday as Spain tried to move on from a dramatic few days that have rocked their World Cup preparations.
Just two days before their Group B opener against Portugal, Ramos’s future club manager Lopetegui was sacked for not informing the Spanish federation of his negotiations with Real.
Fernando Hierro will instead take charge, but Ramos insists Spain remain contenders for the tournament.
“These have not been pleasant times at all,” he said on the eve of the match in Sochi.
“There are no cracks. We are all individuals and we all think differently, but the collective idea is the same — we are here to go for the World Cup.”