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Russia found World Cup magic by losing a star player

If Alan Dzagoev didn’t go down, we wouldn’t have seen Denis Cheryshev’s amazing goals.

Russia v Saudi Arabia: Group A - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Check out this awesome goal that Denis Cheryshev scored in Russia’s stunning 5-0 walloping of Saudi Arabia in the opening game of the World Cup.

Think that was a nice goal? Here’s an even better one that Cheryshev scored at the end of the second half.

No matter what happens during the rest of this World Cup, Cheryshev gave Russian fans a memory that they’ll have forever. And they almost didn’t happen, because Cheryshev started the game on the bench.

Cheryshev, the first substitute to ever score in a World Cup opener, only got on the pitch because of an injury to Russian star Alan Dzagoev. Russia was up 1-0 and playing fine when Dzagoev was forced out of the match, but the enforced tactical switch is what allowed the hosts to really dominate.

Let’s take a minute to pour one out for Dzagoev, an immensely talented player who’s never shown what he’s capable of on the biggest stage. He was a revered wonderkid when he first came up at CSKA Moscow, but he never moved to one of Europe‘s top four leagues. Russia struggled at the 2014 World Cup, and then Dzagoev was injured for both Euro 2016 and the 2017 Confederations Cup.

Despite all that, Dzagoev was supposed to be one of Russia’s key players at this tournament. But he’s also a very specific player, so his presence presented some issues. Russia’s best player is actually Aleksandr Golovin. Unlike Dzagoev, he looks likely to move on from CSKA Moscow this summer. Also unlike Dzagoev, he’s very versatile. While Dzagoev seemingly needs to be the central playmaker to be effective, Golovin has shown an ability to be nearly as effective starting on the wing.

Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov took the position that he needed to get his best talent on the pitch no matter what, so he played Dzagoev in his best position and pushed Golovin out to the left. It’s an entirely defensible decision, but it wasn’t the right choice.

When Dzagoev exited and Cheryshev came in, two big things changed. First, Golovin was freed up to drift into whatever space he could find from a central starting position, which allowed him to get onto the ball more often and made him a nightmare to keep track of. Second, Russia gained a real left winger. Cheryshev might not be as good of a player as either Dzagoev or Golovin — he’s extremely one-footed and only effective when he has a lot of space to run into — but he’s different. Instead of having two attacking players who wanted to do a lot of the same things, Cheryshev‘s introduction meant that Russia had a playmaker and fast, direct winger to compliment each other.

It really sucks to see Dzagoev go down again. When he’s at his best, he’s an incredible player for Russia, and injuries have robbed him of what could have been a stellar international career. But his injury is a blessing in disguise for Russia.

Germany only found its best lineup in the men’s 2014 World Cup when Shkrodan Mustafi got injured, forcing manager Joachim Löw to introduce Sami Khedira and move Philipp Lahm to right back. The United States only discovered its best lineup at the women’s 2015 World Cup when Lauren Holiday got suspended and Jill Ellis discovered that Morgan Brian was what her team was missing. And now, Russia has had its Mustafi/Holiday moment.

Russia could have beaten Saudi Arabia with any lineup, but they needed to find this lineup — the one with Golovin in the middle and Cheryshev out left — to have hope of making a deep run in the tournament.

On Tuesday, Russia made a step up in competition, facing off against Egypt. They ran out the band of three attacking midfielders they found in their opener — Cheryshev, Golovin and Samedov. It worked just as well, with the Russians looking confident in a 3-1 victory.

Cheryshev had one of the goals, taking him to three on the tournament, level with Cristiano Ronaldo.

Before the World Cup started, few thought Russia would give Uruguay a difficult game and look like a threat to its round of 16 opponent. But Russia has been the tournament’s most convincing team thus far, and it wouldn’t have happened without Dzagoev’s absence.