SAMARA, Russia (Reuters) - The lowest-ranked team coming into their own World Cup, Russia have sparkled since the action began — and perhaps the secret to their success is not just their ability on the ball but good old-fashioned industry.
No other team has matched the hosts’ Stakhanovite workrate in their opening matches — both of which Russia won by healthy margins — nor even come close when it comes to putting in the hard yards.
According to FIFA’s statistics, Russia, who play Uruguay in their final group game on Monday, have, by a startling margin, covered more ground than any other team, with their opening 5-0 victory over Saudi Arabia seeing them run a collective 118 kilometres.
To put that into context, the second highest distance covered in the first round of matches was 112km by Egypt in their defeat to Uruguay.
In their second match, a 3-1 victory over Egypt, Russia took their total over two games to more than 233km, which, after Friday’s action, was around 8km more than any other two-match team, with workmanlike Australia their nearest challengers.
This ferocious industry has been spearheaded by Aleksandr Golovin, who has not only stood out as a shining midfield talent, but also as the most hardworking player at the tournament, covering an impressive 25.15km.
And Golovin, like Russia’s other players, is not simply accumulating distance by ambling around the pitch.
Any doubts that the stats for distance covered provide an accurate picture of effort are dispelled when you look at the figures for the number of sprints made, with Russia again leading the way having completed 824 in their two matches.
Those looking for the source of Argentina’s struggles at this tournament might be interested to see that the South Americans completed only 604 sprints in their draw with Iceland and defeat to Croatia.
This may go some way towards explaining how a Russian team, who had won just one of their last nine matches at previous tournaments and none of their last seven warmup games, have now breezed into the knockouts with a game to spare.
Undoubtedly fuelled by the adrenaline that comes from being roared on by a passionate home crowd, Russia face Uruguay at the Samara Arena to decide who will finish top of Group A, which carries the incentive of avoiding the victors in Group B.
With Uruguay having edged into the last 16 with narrow 1-0 victories over Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the impressive Russians will be keen to finish the group with a perfect record.
Reporting by Toby Davis; Editing by Ian Chadband