An own goal by Egypt defender Ahmed Fathi two minutes after halftime opened the floodgates as host Russia all but mathematically assured itself of advancing to the knockout round of the World Cup with a 3-1 dismantling of Egypt in St. Petersburg on Tuesday that spoiled the return of Mohamed Salah.
Denis Cheryshev and Artem Dzyuba, who both scored as substitutes in the Sbornaya’s 5-0 rout of Saudi Arabia to open the tournament, sealed the victory with goals two minutes apart as all the projections of Russia being the second host country to fail to reach the round of 16 given the struggles in the run-up to the World Cup have fallen apart with two inspired efforts in front of its fans.
Russia has the maximum six points through two matches in Group A and a staggering plus-seven goal difference. It will clinch a spot in the round of 16 if group favorite Uruguay defeats Saudi Arabia on Wednesday at Rostov-on-Don.
Unless La Celeste put up a big number against the Green Falcons, the Sbornaya could conceivably then play for a draw against the two-time World Cup champions to claim the top spot in the group. Egypt will be eliminated if Uruguay defeats Saudi Arabia, reducing its final group match to a dead rubber.
Salah, playing for the first time since injuring his shoulder on a tackle by Spain and Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos while playing for Liverpool in the Champions League final 23 days ago, gave the Pharaohs a lifeline in the 73rd minute when he ripped a penalty into the right side after being hauled down on a foul that started just outside the penalty area.
Referee Enrique Caceres originally called for a free kick just outside the area before the Video Assistant Referee overturned that call and awarded a penalty.
Salah appeared tentative early in the match as he got his legs under him following the three-week layoff, with his first meaningful chance coming late in the first half. He was able to create some space for himself at the top of the penalty area after collecting a pass by Mohamed Abdelshafy but swept a left-footed attempt wide of the right post.
In the 55th minute, a poor first touch prevented him from getting a clean look to potentially tie the contest as his shot was blocked over the line for an Egypt corner.
After a cagey and scoreless first half in which Cheryshev and Dzyuba justified their inclusion into Russia’s first XI by coach Stanislav Cherchesov with positive play going forward, the sequence on Fathi’s own goal started when Pharaohs keeper Mohamed El-Shenaway punched away a cross into the middle of the pitch.
Roman Zobnin scuffed his attempt on a run-up some 25 yards from goal, but his shot bounced off Fateh’s knee while he was tangled with Dzyuba and spun inside the right post to the shock of both teams as the home crowd erupted with delight.
The goal sprung the Sbornaya to life, with Cheryshev doubling the lead in the 59th minute with his third goal of the tournament. Mario Fernandes burst into the right side of the penalty area and played the ball from near the end line back to Cheryshev, who ghosted into open space and slotted between El-Shenaway’s legs from eight yards.
The Russian fans hadn’t stopped cheering when Dzyuba made it 3-0. The Arsenal Tula striker chested down a pass from Ilya Kupetov in the top of the penalty area and played the ball around Ahmed Hegazy, fending off the central defender before ripping a shot inside the right post El-Shenaway had no chance to stop.
After Salah’s penalty, the Pharaohs poured forward looking to further fuel their comeback with a second, but Russia keeper Igor Akinfeev thwarted the best chance when he stepped in front of a cross angling for the left post. Sub Amr Warda had a chance in the 90th minute, but he scuffed his right-footed attempt from 20 yards wide of the near post.
The result leaves Russia on the verge of reaching the knockout round for the first time since 1986 when it was known as the Soviet Union. It is also the first time since that World Cup the Sbornaya have won two matches in a single tournament.
Egypt, which is in the World Cup for the first time since 1990, looks destined for its third early exit in as many appearances.