Russia produced the sort of soccer purists dream of and gave the Czech Republic a lesson in moving the ball quickly, effectively and beautifully on Friday as they announced themselves as potential Euro 2012 challengers.
Alan Dzagoyev scored twice in the 4-1 triumph in their Group A opener, but little maestro Andrei Arshavin took many of the plaudits for threading the sort of cute little passes which give nightmares to cumbersome defenders.
Odds were quickly slashed on Dick Advocaat’s men winning the tournament, but with a long way to go and a potentially tough quarter-final against the Germans, Dutch or Portuguese, they will have to keep this form going for a few weeks yet.
“The Czechs left some space, which made us dangerous,” said Advocaat, a Dutchman schooled in the pass-and-move groove.
“For the first game, I am happy about it. Andrei played a very good game. He worked very hard. He was very important for the team, the way he can play,” Advocaat said.
Asked if his side were now among the favorites, Advocaat exuded the sort of realism that Russia will need if they are to avoid a repeat of their 2008 semi-final failure after being equally hyped.
“It is most important we won the first game. At the end is when you lift the trophy, not now,” he said.
The Czech Republic actually started the game the better, controlling possession until a quick break after 15 minutes had Russia in front.
Alexander Kerzhakov hit the post with a header, the closest he came on an otherwise profligate night in front of goal, only for Dzagoyev to coolly strike home the rebound.
It got worse for Michal Bilek’s men as soon waves of Russians poured forward with the ball almost always played to feet along the slick pitch coated with a shower of rain.
The moment of the match came when Arshavin — who seemed to have lost all his mercurial powers in recent years after wowing Euro 2008 — showed there was life in the Russian bear yet, with the most effortless, but the most destructive, pass imaginable.
Roman Shirokov then flicked the ball over goalkeeper Petr Cech with another spot of brilliance to net the second and thrill a sizeable contingent of Russians inside the impressive bowled Wroclaw Stadium.
The Czech border is not far away from the Polish host city, but it was an unhappy journey back for their army of painted-faced fans.
Vaclav Pilar’s 52nd-minute goal which made it 2-1 was well worked and briefly made a game of it.
They upped the pressure though and with the Czechs tiring, especially leftback Michal Kadlec, who was picked to bomb forward on every occasion, but left dangerous holes, the match was put to bed in emphatic fashion.
The craft and the guile were still present in the move for the third, but Dzagoyev’s thumping 79th-minute finish was a sign that Russia can also do power.
Substitute striker Roman Pavlyuchenko, who could find himself in the starting lineup for Russia’s next match against Poland in Warsaw on Tuesday given Kerzhakov’s wastefulness, then bamboozled the defense and buried his fierce shot into the net three minutes later for the fourth.
“We scored the goal, but we were losing the ball again and our opponents punished us for this,” Bilek said.