Good old Russia. How could we rule them out completely? First, they were derided for being the lowest Fifa ranked team before the start of the World Cup. This could have possibly given way to talk of why they were hosting the showpiece event in the first place, conveniently ignoring Qatar having never been a part of a single edition – that will change in 2022.
Stanislav Cherchesov’s side laboured in all the friendly matches leading up to the tournament. If one had to trace the starting point for the criticism, it started a year ago, when the side had a disastrous Confederations Cup campaign.
Neither were the current lot of players hailed as a talent-rich one nor did domestic performances do anything to lift the mood of their fans. How many would have given the Russians a chance in the last-16? They were up against the mighty Spanish after all. They had progressed to the knockout stages for the first time in their history.
With the stunning penalty shootout win against Spain in Moscow, Russia have now created history, and left a trail for the future generations to follow. They can now dare to dream against a Croatia side that barely scraped past Denmark in their round of 16 contest.
Their encounter against Spain may have summed up Russia’s fate all through the tournament: enduring a torrid spell before making a defiant comeback. Their campaign also started in a similar vein, losing playmaker Alan Dzagoev to injury early in the first half of their opening match. It was another matter that they went on to batter a toothless Saudi Arabia outfit 5-0.
Another commanding display, this time against Egypt, had lifted the mood of the country. They had progressed to the last-16, moving away from the time they had competed as Soviet Union. But those expectations had to be tempered as Uruguay ran out comfortable winners when they faced the hosts during their final group stage game.
Facing another side with pedigree, it had all the makings of yet another painful evening for the Russians. They had fallen behind to an early goal in somewhat unfortunate circumstances.
Spain were seeing a lot of the ball and given their experience and big tournament nous, could turn defence into attack at any given point and plunder more goals. Their backline was a patched-up one. One one hand, there is Sergei Ignashevich, who turns 39 in less than three weeks time. Giving him company was left-back Yuri Zhirkov, another elder statesman in the side.
Mario Fernandes and Ilya Kutepov had recorded a grand total of 20 caps between them. Their midfield, while not being a creative force of nature like Spain’s, was an industrious one. The outlets were to get Aleksandr Samedov to ping balls over the defence and for Golovin and striker Artem Dzyuba to make something of it.
Surprisingly, Spain were reticent in attack, despite making the statistical history of completing more than 1000 passes in a game. Even after Dzyuba had scored the equaliser, there was little sense of urgency from the Spaniards in trying to slice open their opponents.
The few times Spain had a sniff on goal, the defence was there to see out the danger. Wily old Ignashevich was watchful and Kutepov was stoic, letting nothing pass through the left channel. A frustrated Spain, later in the game took shots from distance, but none of it had the defence or keeper Igor Akinfeev in any kind of bother.
And make no mistake. Despite their late off-field drama before the start of the tournament, and their sluggish performances in the group stages, Spain are a side who have gone almost two years unbeaten. They have scored in each one of their last 23 games. While a scratchy, almost confused brand of tiki-taka might have plotted their failure to influence proceedings in normal time, the penalty shootout wasn’t. David de Gea might have made all of two saves during the World Cup, but he would have been fancying his chances going into the shootout.
Akinfeev, tipped for big things when he was younger, had his crowing moment. De Gea couldn’t get his hands on a single spot kick. The trend of a home team doing well on home soil during a World Cup continues, but none of the predecessors’ chances were written off as much as Russia.