ST PETERSBURG, Russia: Russia revived their hopes of reaching the Euro 2020 knockout stages with an unimpressive 1-0 win over Finland on Wednesday in which Aleksei Miranchuk made all the difference with a sublime individual performance.
The 25-year-old attacking midfielder, who came on as a substitute in the opening 3-0 defeat by Belgium, was deployed as a forward in a 4-3-3 formation against the Finns and finally delivered for his country on the big stage.
Apart from scoring a brilliant winner on the stroke of halftime, Miranchuk was a constant threat with his intricate passing and runs into the penalty area behind towering striker Artem Dzyuba.
Miranchuk carried his good club form into the European Championship, having helped Atalanta to a third-place finish in Italy's Serie A this season.
He had struggled at international level, however, his solitary appearance in the 2018 World Cup coming in Russia's 3-0 group stage defeat by Uruguay and he played no part in their run to the quarter-finals.
Miranchuk repaid coach Stanislav Cherchesov's faith handsomely against Finland as he netted his sixth goal in 35 games for Russia, whose overall display on home soil in St Petersburg still left a lot to be desired.
Much like they did against Belgium, the Russians looked vulnerable at the back as Finland created an array of chances and nearly took a third-minute lead when Joel Pohjanpalo's header was chalked off for marginal offside.
With right back Mario Fernandes limping off injured in the first half and Dmitri Barinov struggling, it was centre back Igor Diveev who saved the day with a number of timely interventions.
The Finns, who packed their defence like they did against in the opening 1-0 win over Denmark, looked a threat whenever they came forward with purpose.
Having beaten the Danes with their only attempt on goal when Pohjanpalo headed past Kasper Schmeichel, Finland showed much more attacking against Russia but were foiled by Diveev who also came on as a substitute against the Belgians.
The 21-year-old central defender has probably cemented his place in the starting line-up but Cherchesov will be pondering who to turn to in the decisive match against Denmark in Copenhagen.
With injured stalwart Yuri Zhirkov out for the rest of the tournament and Fernandes looking doubtful, the coach has few reliable options in a thin-looking squad.