MOSCOW: World Cup 2018 hosts Russia ended a disappointing year with a last-gasp 1-0 friendly victory over Romania on Tuesday as they played in Grozny, Chechnya, for the first time.
Substitute Magomed Ozdoev, who was born in the Chechen capital – one of the biggest cities in the North Caucasus -scored the only goal three minutes into stoppage time.
It was a momentous evening not only for Rubin Kazan midfielder Ozdoev, who scored his first goal for the national team, but also for the city of his birth.
This was the first international Russia had played in Chechnya, which experienced two devastating wars in the 1990s when government forces battled Islamist insurgents.
It is still considered too much of a security risk to host games at the 2018 World Cup but the award of Tuesday’s match was seen by some political commentators as a gesture of solidarity.
“I feel like a happy person today and I enjoyed the game,” Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a long-time ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin, told the TASS news agency.
“It was doubly nice that Ozdoev scored the goal.”
Kadyrov, who rules Chechnya unopposed, is a keen follower of football and the local premier league club Terek Grozny are bankrolled by the government.
Some 30,000 fans packed into the Akhmat Arena, but they were not treated to a classic encounter with chances at a premium.
It was the first time Russia had played with the new ‘Krasava’ football which will be used at the 2017 Confederations Cup – a warm-up tournament for the World Cup finals.
Russia, whose win meant they avoided a record-equalling seventh defeat in a year, were lucky not to go behind after 28 minutes when Dorin Rotariu squandered an excellent chance when he slid his shot past the post after being put through on goal.
Russia were poor for long periods but they improved in the second half and scored the winner deep into stoppage time when Ozdoev reacted quickest to slot the ball into an empty net after Romania keeper Costel Pantilimon saved Dmitri Poloz’s shot.
“…it wasn’t surprising that we scored a goal due to what was happening in the stadium – the spectators were urging us forward,” said Russia’s head coach Stanislav Cherchesov.
“We were more organised than we were against Qatar,” he added referring to his side’s 2-1 defeat in a friendly on Thursday. “We managed to achieve about 60-70 percent of what we needed to when playing modern football.”
(Reporting by Dmitriy Rogovitskiy; Editing by Ken Ferris)