As the Russian saying goes, another town another temper.
After the white heat of Marseille this was the cold custard of Lille as a flaccid Russia were well beaten by Slovakia in front of an oddly constrained, almost jarringly well-behaved section of travelling fans.
A single flare – hastily pardoned by Uefa - was all the disciplinary observers had to bother themselves with on an afternoon when Russia’s footballers came to the Stade Pierre Mauroy in the cool northern tip of France with a Damoclean threat of ejection hanging over them.
There are of course more orthodox ways of exiting this tournament at the earliest opportunity, which Russia look well-placed to take up on this evidence. Indeed the bigger question, as the red shirts sloped across to applaud their own rapidly exiting (but unscragged and unbludgeoned) fans, was how England had managed not to beat Leonid Slutsky’s team of old legs and old lags. The defence in particular, had a tractor-like, trundling look to it here, ripe for being moved around and forced to shuttle sideways, where England asked Harry Kane to spend most of the evening wrestling with his back to goal.
The real story of the afternoon was an outstanding performance from Slovakia’s playmaker Marek Hamsik. The Napoli forward scored a brilliant second goal and looked, frankly, a cut above every other player on the pitch as Russia gasped and spluttered around him, crunching about in first gear until the final 15 minutes.
This was a genuinely odd occasion all round as Lille held its breath and before kick-off the stadium thronged with the kind of news infantry not often associated with a midweek group meeting of mid-range tournament outsiders. And so the people watched the people watching the people, coiled for the first coshing, the first smoke bomb, the first amphetamine-crazed kung-fu charge.
They went home disappointed in the end. These weren’t the same Russians. Not in the stadium anyway. For now that bloody Saturday in the Stade Vélodrome looked like a one-off affair, a targeted assault on England’s paunchy regulars, and renewed afterwards in the town. After the cage-fight aesthetic of Marseilles this was milder, more haute couture and spray-tan crowd. The Russian fans strolling the byways and food courts before kick-off looked more likely to spritz you with their Evian humidifier spray than cosh you about the head with an extendable military truncheon.
With the roof closed there was a dank, echoey atmosphere inside this sealed out-of-town canister, reminiscent of a vast agricultural silage shed. The national anthems were sung enthusiastically, after which the Russian end simply sat and watched. At times it felt like a testimonial, or a midweek schools tournament inside a nice, new-build stadium that was perhaps simply too big for this game.
Thank heavens, then, for Hamsik, who spent the early stages scuttling about with wonderful purpose through the spaces in the Russian midfield. He is a lovely mover, a bouncy, bendy, upright pass-and-move general in marmalade boots, that familiar mohawk spikily erect.
Here he had a fairly free central role, dropping deep to pick up the ball, then surging though the centre behind Ondrej Duda, moonlighting as a No9, but with the guile and movement to spark Hamsik’s eye for a pass. Russia shuttled the ball around with a sulky, grudging air. Artem Dzyuba tried to bullock through the middle a few times. But really, England? A draw? With this lot?
With nine minutes gone Hamsik took the ball with a perfect feathery touch on his right foot, then spanked it just over with his left, a lovely instant shift of gear. He had a small part in the opening goal, playing the ball to Vladimir Weiss, who did all the rest himself. The step inside was wonderful, sending Sergi Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski not just the wrong way but out of the stadium and into downtown Lille for a quiet turn around the Louvre, before Weiss whipped the ball into the far corner past Igor Akinfeev.
Slovenia’s second on half-time was a beauty, and entirely Hamsik-made.
Taking the ball on the left as Russia dawdled at a corner Hamsik jagged sideways, paused and then spanked the ball with the top of his foot, a beautiful, low-backlift shot that scalded Akinfeev’s nose on its way past and pinged in off the far post. It was the perfect hit into the perfect spot, from an angle only the really gifted could execute so smoothly. Hamsik posed, Ronaldo-style, pumping his fists in front of the Slovakian end as Russia sloped back towards their own goal.
Slovakia faded a little at the end as Russia’s trudging long-distance tempo endured. But they have the movement and guile to give England’s defence an awkward time in Saint-Étienne. Hamsik’s performance in particular was an interesting point of comparison with Wayne Rooney’s good show in Marseille against the same opposition.
An attacking midfielder with more than 350 games in Serie A behind him, Hamsik floated and linked and even stopped and waited here, every pass and run programmed with acquired intelligence, energy rarely wasted. Sometimes a little calm can be a wonderful thing.
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