SOCCER MATTERS

World Cup recap: Russia starts the party with 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia

The World Cup opened on Thursday. Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

The 2018 FIFA World Cup kicked off on Wednesday with a five-goal performance from the host nation Russia. Day one of activities began with the opening ceremony - which left plenty for social media to talk about - and the first match of the month-long tournament.

Opening Ceremony

If you didn’t know of English pop star Robbie Williams, chances are you either found out today by watching on TV or seeing posts on social media of him flipping the middle finger to begin his 15-minute pre-match concert. The performance also featured flags of the 32 teams in the competition with appearances by former World Cup winners in Brazil’s Ronaldo and Spain’s Iker Casillas. The end of the ceremony featured welcome speeches from Russian President Vladimir Putin and FIFA President Gianni Infantino.

Russia 5-0 Saudi Arabia
Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow

Attendance: 78,011

It was a pleasant surprise to kick off the tournament with a five-goal thriller from the host country. Neither Russia nor Saudi Arabia were really expected to generate a lot of attack due to their lack of talent, so a much more defensive game was expected. Both teams were clumsy in the opening minutes before Iury Gazinsky sent the home crowd into a frenzy with the opening goal off a header in the 12th minute of play. The hosts were then forced to make a substitution in the 24th minute when midfielder Alan Dzagoev suffered a hamstring injury while pushing forward in attack. The change actually gave the team a boost offensively as it prompted Denis Cheryshev, who plays in Spain’s La Liga, to take the field. He became the first substitute to score in an World Cup opening match (43’) with his individual play inside the box that gave Russia a 2-0 lead at halftime.

Needing to push for a result, Saudi Arabia pressed higher and looked more organized to start the second half. They actually finished the match leading in possession and passes but could never do anything concrete, generating only three shots (all off-target) all game. Daler Kuziaev became the second substitute to score in an World Cup opener with his header in the 71st minute. Cheryshev would then find the back of the net again with a stunner inside the box in the 91st minute. Russia would finish with a 5-0 victory after Aleksandr Golovin converted off a free-kick in the 94th minute.

Analysis: This match was an important one for both countries as it was their best opportunity for three points with Egypt and Uruguay also in their group. With only the top two going through to the knockout round, three points were almost a must here to survive - a draw would do very little since it would complicate things with only one point in hand. In Russia’s case, it officially kicked off the party with a win and relieved tensions by breaking a seven-match winless streak. This loss is a heartbreaker for Saudi Arabia because it virtually eliminates them unless they can somehow miraculously silence some of the world’s most prolific goalscorers in Egypt’s Mohamed Salah and Uruguay’s Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.

Notable Stat: Host countries remain unbeaten in the opening match of the FIFA World Cup (16 wins, 6 draws, 0 losses)

Upcoming Matches (All Times CT):

Friday, June 15

7 a.m. - [Group A] Egypt vs. Uruguay (FS1, Telemundo)

10 a.m. - [Group B] Morocco vs. Iran (FOX, Telemundo)

1 p.m. - [Group B] Portugal vs. Spain (FOX, Telemundo)

ESPN 97.5 will be hosting a World Cup Watch Party and broadcasting LIVE from Nick’s Place (2713 Rockyridge Dr, Houston, TX 77063) on Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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Houston loses first game to Oakland

A's end losing streak against Astros with late homers

Lance McCullers Jr. went five innings of one-run ball Friday night. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

After maintaining their stronghold against the A's in Thursday's home opener, the Astros had the chance to lock up the three-game series victory against Oakland with a win on Friday night. On the mound, Lance McCullers Jr. hoped to improve upon his first start against this same team, a five-inning one-run outing.

Instead, he would have the same outcome, once again lasting five innings while allowing one run, before a big tie-breaking home run late in the game would push Oakland out of their losing skid against the Astros.

Final Score: A's 6, Astros 2

Astros' Record: 6-2, tied for first in AL West

Winning Pitcher: Yusmeiro Petit (2-0)

Losing Pitcher: Bryan Abreu (1-1)

McCullers Jr. makes it through five

McCullers Jr. looked sharp through the first three innings, allowing just two baserunners, one on a second-inning single, then a walk in the third. Oakland did better against him the second time through their order in the fourth, with Jed Lowrie leading the inning off with a solo home run to put Oakland in front 1-0.

They went on to load the bases with one out on an error and two walks, but McCullers would strand them all. He returned for the fifth, a much cleaner inning where a caught stealing by Martin Maldonado would help him face just three batters. His final line: 5.0 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 6 K, 88 P.

Oakland gets homer-happy to even the series

McCullers Jr. would leave the game without being eligible for the winning or losing decision, as an RBI-groundout by Kyle Tucker in the fourth would have it tied 1-1. Bryan Abreu was the first out of Houston's bullpen, and he would attempt to eat up multiple innings. He had perfect innings in the sixth and seventh, retiring six A's in order to maintain the stalemate.

Abreu remained in the game in the top of the eighth, allowing a single before getting a strikeout, ending his run as Dusty Baker would bring in left-handed Blake Taylor. Taylor would give up a single against his first batter, then a loud go-ahead three-run home run to Matt Olson to push the A's back in front 4-1. They'd add two more insurance runs off of Joe Smith in the top of the ninth, getting a two-run home run by Mark Canha to extend the lead to 6-1.

Oakland's bullpen would hold on to the newly created lead, allowing just one run on a sac fly by Jose Altuve in the bottom of the ninth, finally ending their losing streak against Houston and setting up the rubber game on Saturday to be for the series victory.

Up Next: This series's finale will be a Saturday afternoon start, with first pitch scheduled for 3:05 PM. For the Astros, Jose Urquidy (0-0, 4.15 ERA) will look to get a win on the board, while Oakland will hand the ball to Frankie Montas (0-1, 23.63 ERA).

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