Fyodor Dostoevsky called Saint Petersburg ‘the most abstract and intentional’ of cities, and the same adjectives could be said to apply to the impressive new Krestovsky Stadium that hosted the second game in Group B tonight. Like Saint Petersburg itself, there is something artificial, beautiful and aspirational about the new home of the Russian champions Zenit. It is both a window to the world and a statement of intent.
But, like a Dostoevsky novel, things didn’t quite work out how the protagonist had planned. Head coach Stanislav Cherchesov opted controversially for the same 5-3-2 formation that the Belgians had dismantled with ease seven months ago, bringing in Ilzat Akhmetov of CSKA Moscow to replace Ionov in right midfield. While Roberto Martinez’s Belgium side ultimately prevailed by the same emphatic scoreline as they had in the qualifiers in November, it was more than flattering this time around. As the shellshocked red-shirted players trudged off the pitch beneath the midnight sun at full time, they could be forgiven for wondering what might have been.
The game started predictably enough, with the ever-perilous Hazard brothers firing a warning shot in the third minute. Eden Hazard picked up a loose ball in midfield after a stumble from Zenit’s Magomed Ozdoev and raced down the centre. Instead of the anticipated shot, he flicked the ball instead to his brother Thorgan out on the left, who nutmegged Fernandes and broke into the penalty area, only to direct a rather tame finish straight into the grateful arms of the veteran Lokomotiv Moscow goalkeeper Guilherme.
This let-off had a galvanising effect on the Russians, both in the stands and on the pitch. With the baying crowd behind them, Cherchesov’s men visibly grew in confidence, their compact defending frustrating the Belgians time and time again as they gradually took a stranglehold of the midfield. Romelu Lukaku struggled with the combined attentions of Dzhikya and Petrov, while Eden Hazard was a shadow of himself, the Real Madrid star almost invisible in spite of his blinding golden shirt.
It was no surprise, then, when Russia took a deserved lead in the 35th minute. Spartak Moscow’s Roman Zobnin picked up the ball on the halfway line and launched a scintillating run at the sluggish Belgian defence, before overhitting a pass to Miranchuk, of city rivals Lokomotiv. Miranchuk did well to keep it in play, controlling the ball awkwardly on his chest and passing it to captain Artem Dzyuba on the edge of the six yard box. The Zenit Saint Petersburg man ploughed goalward over the legs of Vermaelen and Boyata, before hacking the ball over the line beneath the onrushing Courtois.
After the 4-1 drubbing in November, the Russian media had been wringing its hands at the prospect of another visit from the marauding Belgians to the Krestovsky in the tournament proper. But as Dzyuba and his team mates celebrated wildly in front of a rather bemused cameraman from state television’s Channel One, they must have been wondering what all the fuss was about. Straight from kick-off, Witsel was dispossessed by Ozdoev, who attempted to pick out his Zenit teammate Dzyuba in the centre. The pass went awry, and Roberto Martinez looked visibly relieved when the half-time whistle went and provided the favourites with a chance to regroup at the interval.
Martinez made no changes at halftime, but whatever he said in the dressing room appeared to do the trick. The Belgians started the second half with aggressive swagger, as Cherchesov’s men withdrew into their own half, content to sit back and defend their fragile lead. But discipline in the Russian ranks was fraying, and the tipping point came in the 65th minute as Ilzat Akhmetov scythed down Kevin De Bruyne in the centre circle, with the latter looking to break with Lukaku in space to his right.
Predictive text is no friend to Akhmetov. Perhaps unsatisfied with the CSKA Moscow midfielder’s literary credentials, my laptop chronically attempts to replace his name with that of the legendary 20th century poet Anna Akhmatova.
Quite how the tragic queen of Russian letters would have dealt with an increasingly lively De Bruyne is a matter of conjecture, but Akhmetov looked overstretched. He was lucky to get away with a yellow card for the cynical foul on the Manchester City man, before demonstrating his own distinctive way with words as the pair clashed again five minutes later in an off-the-ball incident. This time he was shown a straight red, and the stage was set for a frantic finale.
With a sense of grim inevitability, the Krestovsky watched as the resulting throw-in was thumped upfield by De Bruyne to Lukaku on the edge of the penalty area, who played an inch-perfect pass for Eden Hazard to smash home from close range.
Two minutes later Lukaku jumped for an in-swinging corner and was pulled clumsily to the ground by Semenov. The Inter Milan striker stepped up to take the spot kick himself, hammering an unstoppable effort into the roof of the net. From heading for the summit of Group B moments earlier, the Russians suddenly found themselves with a mountain to climb.
Cherchesov brought on Komlichenko for a visibly frustrated Dzyuba with eight minutes to go, but it was too little, too late. Lukaku netted his second four minutes from time with a superb solo effort, the punch-drunk Russian defence providing him too much space as he broke down the centre and found himself with plenty of time to line up an unstoppable low drive to the bottom-right corner from 25 metres out.
By this point the fourth goal seemed a cruel inevitability. It was fitting that De Bruyne was the man to score it, deep into injury time, latching on to a long ball from Castagne. With several options open, not least Eden Hazard in acres of space to his left, he instead coolly finished the job himself.
The sense of disappointment at the Krestovsky was palpable as the final whistle sounded and the crowd filed out into the midnight sun. But for a long time this evening, Russia seemed to be heading for a shock victory until their lack of discipline allowed the favourites a way back into the game. There is plenty to build on for the next two games, but the lessons from this thrilling night in Saint Petersburg need to be learned fast.
Crime, as Dostoevsky has reminded us, is usually followed sooner rather than later by Punishment.