Hosts Russia all but guaranteed their place in the last 16 of the World Cup, shrugging aside the goalscoring return of Mohamed Salah to sweep aside Egypt 3-1 in St Petersburg.
Derided by many as one of the worst World Cup home sides in living memory, Stanislav Cherchesov’s side doubled down on their 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia with another narrative-busting display that will take them to the knockout phase barring a highly unlikely sequence of results.
Ahmed Fathi provided the helping hand, bundling home Roman Zobnin’s scuffed shot moments early in the second half and taking the Africans to the brink of a disappointing exit, but Russia’s victory was assured by smart strikes from Denis Cheryshev and Artem Dzyuba.
Roared on by their countrymen, who have been braced for calamity at the competition but now sense something grander, they survived a VAR-assisted penalty from Salah on his eagerly anticipated comeback from a dislocated shoulder.
The Liverpool forward’s appearance in the Egypt XI, his first outing since walking out of the Champions League final with tears in his eyes, immediately raised the stakes.
As well as providing a reward for the forward’s diligent rehabilitation, it offered the fixture some much-needed star power and helped divide the attention of an otherwise partisan 60,000 crowd.
While Russia’s every foray upfield was roared on with gusto, the mercury rose every time the Premier League’s top-scorer sniffed the ball.
For much of the night a sniff was all he got, stationed to the right of Marwan Mohsen and often uncomfortably close to the touch-tight Yuri Zhirkov.
Having fed on scraps against the run of play he had a couple of half-chances late in the first half, one snuffed out by the alert Zhirkov at the far post and the other whipped wide from the edge of the box.
At other times he enjoyed even less success, reduced to waiting expectantly under long balls from back or forced discourteously to the turf as he attempted to spin his marker.
The decibel levels when Salah moved into the final third spoke of his status but at times he gave the impression of a movie star deprived of a script.
Russia, meanwhile, turned in a competent 45 minutes on the front. Sergei Ignashevich should have done better with a close-range header and the impressive Aleksandr Golovin flashed a low shot
wide but 0-0 was a fair account.
Egypt blinked first, and early, after the break. A neat move down the right wing brought Roman Zobnin into shooting range and though his shot skipped seemingly harmlessly into the box, Fathi somehow contrived to stagger into it and nudge it past his own keeper.
Almost an hour had passed when Cheryshev doubled the lead, having already scored twice in the tournament curtain-raiser.
Mario Fernandes laid it on for him, bursting clear and cutting back into the area, leaving the Villarreal midfielder to thread a first-time shot inside the post.
Dzyuba, after a strong evening’s work leading the line, made it 3-0 shortly after. It was a fine piece of forward play – collecting the ball on his chest, nudging past Ali Gabr and sliding a neat shot past Mohamed El-Shenawy.
There was still time for Salah, and the video officials, to stamp their mark on the night. An initial free-kick was upgraded to a penalty on review and smashed home clinically, but there was no stopping the home team’s charge and their joyous reaction at the final whistle was that of a team with knockout football on their minds.