Under the watchful eye of Vladimir Putin - who arrived at the new Krestovsky Stadium in St Petersburg by helicopter 30 minutes before kick-off - Russia fulfilled their president’s wish that they play like “warriors” in their Confederations Cup opener.
No prizes are given out for beating New Zealand, but this was a far more encouraging display from Stanislav Cherchesov’s team than has come to be anticipated in recent times. Putin admitted that the country “expects better” from the national team and – one year out from the World Cup – there is little doubt that they need to improve their standing and fast before facing the best teams on the planet next summer.
This competition is not only a chance for Russia as a country to prepare for hosting its first international football tournament but also a chance for the national team to pit their wits in competitive action.
On the organisational front things have been up to scratch in St Petersburg – a hospitable and pleasant city that benefits from 19 hours of unbroken daylight at this time of year. We were also treated to a warm “welcome to Russia!” from the president himself. This sunny performance from the national team then will have done plenty to banish the dark clouds hanging over the side lately.
Friendly results have been hit and miss; the victory over a paltry Hungary earlier this month was Russia’s first of 2017 and they have sunk to 63rd in FIFA's rankings. They drew with Chile pre-tournament and snaffled a 3-3 draw against Belgium in March. A comprehensive 2-0 defeat to Cote d’Ivoire preceded that and had Cherchesov fearing for his job.
Little was expected from the side here ahead of their opening game in St Petersburg, so the fact that they dominated proceedings against the All Whites will have provided plenty of encouragement.
The home fans at this arena – estimated to have cost some €700m more than it should have – offered immediate impetus to the men in red, most of whom are unfamiliar figures to casual observers.
New blood has been added to the side in the shape of forward Dmitry Poloz and defenders like Viktor Vasin and Georgy Dzhikya, who are solid performers from the Russian Premier League. Spartak Moscow schemer Denis Glushakov provides class in the middle and it was his delicate chip which paved the way for Russia’s opening goal.
The star of the show for the moment, though, is the scorer of the second goal: Fedor Smolov. He plays for Krasnodar, who finished fourth in the RPL this past season, and has been top scorer in Russia for the last two campaigns.
He excels both as a finisher and an approach player and will no doubt turn heads at the Confederations Cup. He created the second Russian goal for himself here by dribbling through the midfield and feeding off Alexander Samedov’s cross from the right.
It’s Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo up next for Russia, not New Zealand and Marco Rojas. That will be a far more exacting exercise for these players but so far, so good. They had their president smiling and clapping in the stands.