Denis Cheryshev for the Golden Boot? He’s scored more goals than Lionel Messi, Neymar and Robert Lewandowski combined, and moved level with Cristiano Ronaldo, after proving the Hero of the Day for Russia against Egypt.
Hot on the heels of that brace off the bench against Saudi Arabia, the Villarreal winger added a third strike to his World Cup scrapbook. In fact he has now scored more goals at the tournament than in his last two La Liga seasons.
Surely he will have at least two more chances, including a Round of 16 clash, to engage in an unlikely duel with Ronaldo.
On from the start in light of Alan Dzagoev’s hamstring injury, Cheryshev tormented Egypt captain Ahmed Fathi for prolonged periods down Egypt’s right-hand side.
The 27-year-old also gleefully moved into central pockets of space left by a lacklustre Mohamed Elneny, dove-tailing particularly well with Artem Dzyuba – himself getting a start thanks to some opening-day heroics.
Cheryshev’s whipped in crosses were beginning to wear Egypt down and he doubled Russia’s lead after losing Elneny in the penalty area and slamming home full-back Mario Fernandes’ cross.
DECISION-MAKING – Cheryshev is a jet-heeled winger and has the ability to blast past his full-back. The veteran Fathi, fully aware of this, stood off him at times to counter this, but Russia’s newest star placed trust in his superb crossing ability over the prospect of running down blind alleys.
He also displayed remarkable intelligence to drift inside, knowing full well Egypt were losing the battle in the middle, and it was from there that he got his just rewards with the goal.
GOAL RUSH – It’s hard to pick at any aspect of Cheryshev’s performance – he was even good in defence too, cutting off the supply line to Salah with two interceptions and two tackles on the night.
If we are being hyper-critical, the No11 could have added one or two more goals to his already outstanding tally, taking a team-high four shots but getting just the one – his second-half strike – on target.
Cheryshev did go closest in an otherwise fairly quiet first half from 20 yards, and no wonder he’s looking more. If you had his left foot, you’d trust it whole-heartedly as well.
Russia needed heroes in a squad which was seemingly devoid of them. Cheryshev has answered his nation’s call and then some.
He had not even played for his country since 2015 prior to this year but Russia have unearthed, or rediscovered, a gem buried in Spain for several years.
Powerful, quick, a fine crosser of the ball and a new-found eye for goal. Swap his passport and he’d get into virtually every starting side at the World Cup.
RATING – 8/10
The return of Mohamed Salah from injury couldn’t prevent World Cup hosts Russia virtually sealing their place in the last 16 by beating Egypt 3-1 on Tuesday.
An own goal by Egypt captain Ahmed Fathi opened the floodgates on a sodden night in Saint Petersburg before goals from Denis Cheryshev and Artem Dzyuba furthered Russian hopes that they can defy pre-tournament expectations with a deep run into the latter stages.
Salah did net Egypt’s first goal at a World Cup since 1990 from the penalty spot after he had been hauled down 17 minutes from time, but it was too little, too late for the Pharaohs.
Here are the key takeaways from the clash.
NO PHARAOH-TALE BUT RUSSIAN REVOLUTION CONTINUES
Egypt waited 28 years for this – sport cares not for the narrative. Few nations have endured such heartache and here was another piercing puncture.
The Pharaohs have endured the extinction of a golden generation which never reached the World Cup only to finally find a superstar to drag them back into relevance.
A shoulder injury ultimately restricted Salah’s ability to carry his nation and then within six days their tournament is virtually brought to an egregious end by a Russian team prophesied to be one of the worst in their history.
There was an earthquake in Mexico after they stunningly beat Germany, in Egypt similar vibrations will have been felt but by the collective thud of hearts sinking.
Ultimately, the Pharaohs were wrapped up by a Russian revolution. Few predicted this rise on home soil, even Russian citizens will be equally surprised with two wins from two and a goal difference of plus-seven, which as was pointed out on Twitter, means as it stands they have made the joint-strongest start to a World Cup since Poland in 1974.
How they perform against Uruguay will provide the true yardstick for their tournament potential.
Yet, given the gloom which hung over the hosts leading into the World Cup after their dreadful Confederations Cup campaign, a FIFA ranking only surpassing Saudi Arabia at this tournament and a squad decimated by injuries, this dream progress will be celebrated across the country.
Few teams will want to sleep on Russia in the knockouts because they are supremely disciplined with their sprinkle of ability thrust forward by the hope of a nation.
Egypt on the other hand will just want to forget this nightmare.
OUTCASTS UPSET THE FORECAST
Denis Cheryshev has truly faded into the background following his infamous Real Madrid career.
Up until now, the 27-year-old drew notoriety because of a Copa del Rey tie against Cadiz in 2015 in which he scored when he was supposed to be serving a suspension.
Real were later disqualified, and Cheryshev’s career was battered by injury with loan spells at Sevilla, Villarreal and Valencia all grouped by health issues.
The winger pitched up back at Villarreal on a permanent deal in 2016 but surgery wiped him out of the entirety of 2017.
In the past two La Liga seasons, he’s managed to score twice. After another fine finish against Egypt, Cheryshev moved level with Cristiano Ronaldo – the superstar who pushed him out of the Bernabeu with his grip of the left-wing spot – with a third goal to surpass his league tally for the last two seasons.
He wasn’t even expected to be in the squad with Dynamo Moscow’s rising star Aleksandr Tashaev said to be preferred.
But after a delightful double against Saudi and now another in Saint Petersburg, his fortune is finally in.
He’s not alone in Russia’s gang of outcasts rising to prominence. Fellow goalscorer and giant targetman Artem Dzyuba has mirrored his team-mate’s success out of despair.
Dzyuba hadn’t been called up for a year after a rumoured row with boss Stanislav Cherchesov before last year’s Confederations Cup. But after a prolific loan spell at Arsenal Tula after he was turfed out by Zenit St Petersburg, he returned in style.
GOLOVIN IS GOLD
The World Cup is above all else a shop window and every tournament possesses a breakout star who rises to the top of buyers’ lists.
Russia 2018 could see Aleksandr Golovin join the likes of James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos in earning money-spinning moves on the back of a superb tournament.
The 22-year-old was viewed as the sole bright light amid the gloomy projections for the host nation but against Saudi Arabia and Egypt on Tuesday, the CSKA Moscow midfielder has positively blazed.
Confident on the ball, he ran at Egypt with either foot, and showed his game-changing ability with the crucial cross which led to their rather fortunate opener.
Russia are a sure-fire for the last-16 after two wins from two and if Golovin can continue this form a lot of big clubs will take notice.
Juventus have been linked, haggling over a €25million fee according to reports in Russia media, but if they won’t pay, another club certainly will.
The Liverpool man’s presence was not enough as the Pharaohs succumbed to a 3-1 defeat to hosts Russia that have left their chances of qualifying for the knockout stages hanging by a thread.
Here’s a look at how the players rated.
Mohamed El-Shenawy 5 – No danger of a man-of-the-match controversy this time – El-Shenawy came nowhere close to repeating the heroics he produced in Egypt’s first match.
Ahmed Fathi 5 – Own goals can sometimes be unfortunate, but here Fathy was largely to blame. His poor attempt at a clearance opened the floodgates for Russia.
Ali Gabr 4 – A poor display from the centre-back, as he wilted under the pressure from Russia’s free-flowing attack.
Ahmed Hegazy 6 – The only Egypt defender who performed well on the night, although it wasn’t enough to hold his team together.
Mohamed Shafy 5 – Struggled against the pace of Russia’s attackers, with Samedov and Cheryshev exposing him time and again.
Mohamed Elneny 5 – After a standout performance against Uruguay, this was a let-down, as the Arsenal man displayed none of the control of midfield he had in the first game.
Tarek Hamed 5 – Like colleague Elneny, Hamed went from an impressive performance against Uruguay to a poor one on Tuesday.
Mohamed Salah 6 – An ineffective display from the Egyptian talisman, although perhaps it was asking too much for him to deliver in his first match back from injury. His penalty was expertly taken.
Abdallah El Said 6 – Decent in possession, although didn’t provide enough penetration to help out Salah in attack.
Trezeguet 5 – He’d looked like a real talent against Uruguay, but showed little of that here, failing to produce the flashes of skill he’s capable of.
Marwan Mohsen 5 – Should have had a penalty in the second half that would have given Egypt the opportunity to make it 3-2. Did a poor job of holding up the ball and linking up play for the attack.
Amr Warda 5 – Would have been disappointed to be relegated to the bench after a strong performance in Egypt’s opener. Fluffed his lines when presented with a good chance late on.
Ramadan Sobhi 5 – Didn’t make enough of an impact after coming on, although given Egypt were already 3-0 down at that point, it was asking a lot for him to change the game.
Kahraba 5 – Had little time to make an impact after coming on as manager Hector Cuper’s last throw of the dice.