Russia kept their perfect start to the 2018 FIFA World Cup intact with a 3-1 win over Egypt on Tuesday at Saint Petersburg Stadium despite Mohamed Salah's return to the Pharaohs' starting XI.
Egypt gave the World Cup hosts a firmer test than Saudi Arabia, but Russia still pulled away with a vital win after Denis Cheryshev scored his third goal in two matches.
An Ahmed Fathi own goal after half-time put Russia within reach of a second successive victory, only for Cheryshev and Artem Dzyuba to score within three minutes of each other and effectively seal their team's place in the round of 16.
Salah made his first appearance of the World Cup, earning and converting a consolatory penalty in the 73rd minute, but he couldn't make the difference for his side as they finished second-best.
Egypt's Supporting Cast Need Salah Going Full Tilt to Succeed
The hype was as high as one would expect leading up to Salah's start on Tuesday, but what could have been a fairy-tale comeback became a story of underperformance.
Manager Hector Cuper deemed the Group A opener against Uruguay too soon a return date for the star, and Salah's World Cup effectively ended after 90 minutes, via Metro Sport:
Some aid from the video assistant referee ensured Salah at least finished with a spot-kick goal to his name, though it came after an uncharacteristically tame first half, per BBC 5 live Sport pundit Pat Nevin:
Barely three weeks have passed since a tussle with Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos in the UEFA Champions League final defeat left Salah's World Cup in doubt. Tuesday's display suggested all is still not right—if not in a physical sense, then at least with the winger's approach to the task at hand, as Salah appeared not to be at his voracious best all too frequently.
The Match of the Day cast analysed a weak opening half from the attacker (U.K. only):
Hopeful balls were lofted up to Marwan Mohsen, while Trezeguet floated in off his wing to have a say in front of goal. But it seemed clear that Salah was the only one with the class to make a dent.
For Egypt to have any hope of an impressive performance against the World Cup elite, they need him. It's more apparent now than it was prior to Tuesday's match, but Salah wasn't at his most involved, per The Independent:
The nature of Russia's growing lead in the second half stirred something in Salah, an anger and frustration you could feel in his elevated play, but Cuper's team needed that from the first whistle.
Had they seen that, Salah and Egypt might still be in the World Cup running. As it is, though, their Group A finale against Saudi Arabia on Monday will be little more than a dead rubber.
Relentless Russia Rallying Where World Cup Favourites Have Failed
Few would have thought Russia were in line to soar at their home World Cup based on their preparations, but it's becoming clear this side may have the makings of a storybook team.
Before the tournament began last Thursday, MailOnline's Nathan Salt wrote that Russia were possibly the worst team to ever host a World Cup. Now, with eight goals in their opening two games, they're showing the hallmarks of a squad that could go as far as any:
It comes amid a World Cup of shocks thus far. Defending champions Germany lost 1-0 to Mexico in Group F, Brazil drew 1-1 with Group E opponents Switzerland, and Argentina were stumped by a draw with Iceland in Group D. Yet Russia are plodding along in not only winning fashion but also with attractive, effective football.
The result was perhaps in the balance after Fathi's own goal, but Dzyuba, starting for the first time this tournament, added a second just minutes after Cheryshev:
Stanislav Cherchesov's side showed several levels to their play in that sequence. Cheryshev's side foot home came at the end of some steady buildup from out wide, and Bleacher Report's Dean Jones was in awe of Dzyuba's direct chest-down-and-turn goal soon after:
Judgement may have been held back after the Saudi Arabia win, no matter the margin, due to the opposition's lack of pedigree, but Russia are proving they can handle pressure in a way certain giants thus far have not.
The host tag is proving so far to be a blessing, and the new favourites are facing a fight to match their intensity and product in front of goal.
Denis Cheryshev Should Have Been in Russia's XI All Along
Russian hearts sank slightly when Alan Dzagoev went down injured early in the team's opening clash against the Green Falcons on Thursday, but Cheryshev's rise in his absence has been a happy side product.
The Villarreal winger was voted man of the match for the second time in as many outings and pulled level with a certain former Real Madrid team-mate as the tournament's top scorer:
He tied Salah for shots on goal (four) and was a thorn in the side of Egypt right-back Fathi all evening. FIFA YouTuber ChuBoi is expecting the Russian to continue his unassuming run for the individual accolades:
Not every winger is fortunate enough to have a 6'4" target man like Dzyuba on the end of his crosses, but Cheryshev made fine use of his frontman, constantly putting Egypt's defence under aerial pressure.
To see CSKA Moscow star midfielder Dzagoev missing out is a tough blow, though he could return for the knockout stages, per Reuters. Cheryshev's takeover, however, has been a thrill to watch.
Russia are next in action at Samara Arena on Monday against top Group A challengers Uruguay, who are facing Saudi Arabia on Wednesday as they look to keep pace at the top of the pool.
Egypt will also return to play on Monday against the Green Falcons at Volgograd Arena, where they will hope to sign off their Group A campaign with their first victory of the World Cup.