MOSCOW: Fernando Hierro, Spain’s stand-in coach, said he, his staff and his players were leaving Russia and the 2018 World Cup finals with “our heads held high” after losing a second round shootout to their hosts writes KEIR RADNEDGE.

The 2010 world champions had been gifted an early own goal but were ultimately held 1-1 after extra time and lost 4-3 on penalties when Koke had a kick saved and Iago Aspas dragged their last shot wide.

Spain will fly home to noisy inquests about whether the federation had been correct to sack coach Julen Lopetegui three days before the finals – for agreeing to take over Real Madrid next season – and Hierro’s own decision to leave playmaker Andres Iniesta on the subs’ bench until lae in the second half.

By the time Iniesta joined the game the Russians were well entrenched in and around their own penalty area and well prepared to defy all Spain’s keep-ball attempts to tease them out of their defensive comfort zone.

Hierro said: “We came here with a lot of ambition and we empathise with our people – the millions of fans who have followed the match at home and the thousands who came to Russia.

“In football there is a fine line between winning and losing. In my last message before the game I told my players: ‘This is a World Cup, enjoy the experience, we are ready, we will compete very well.’ I also told them: ‘Let’s all be able to leave the match with our heads held high.

“We knew it was going to be a difficult match and Russia were strong on set pieces and aerial football and that’s a part of the game. I’m not holding anything against anybody. The 15 players gave it their all but football is sometimes like this.

“We had much more possession and reached the penalty area much more often than them. We did have opportunities to win this match but unfortunately it ended in a shootout, which is a lottery.”

Iniesta decision

Hierro said he had saved Iniesta for later in the game because he expected that, by then, Russia would start to tire and Spain could capitalise. He also pointed out that Spain had not lost any of their four games at the finals.

He refused to discuss his own future within the federation or to comment on whether the change of manager on the eve of the finals.

Hierro concluded: “Three days before the World Cup I was put in this position and if anybody needs to shoulder responsibility then it is I for both the good and the bad. I put my reputation out there because that is what my job required.

“We can’t start finger-pointing and laying blame. We need to be realistic. The situation was what it was. It’s pointless to analyse the past. I took on this role and I accept the consequences.

“I leave this tournament resting easy. I think we all tried to give it our best.”