KEIR RADNEDGE in MOSCOW —- As if Russia did not have enough to celebrate, their own much-derided team has reached the quarter-finals of the 2018 World Cup after taking down Spain via a penalty shootout.
These finals have, by common assent, been the most enjoyable in years from both football and staging perspectives. The Russians’ reward for this and for a 4-3 shootout triumph after a 1-1 extra-time draw is a quarter-final against Croatia. The Croats beat Denmark, also on penalties but by 3-2 and also after a 1-1 extra-time draw.
That said, Spain may be considered authors of their own downfall from the over-hasty decision to sack coach Julen Lopetegui three days before their first match to the ultimate failure to capitalise on their technical and tactical superiority against limited but highly-committed hosts.
A penalty shootout is, as stand-in boss Fernando Hierro noted sadly afterwards, a lottery. Even, appropriately in these circumstances, football’s equivalent of Russian roulette. Thus Spain followed the sad homeward trail of Germany, Leo Messi’s Argentina and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal.
Central defender Sergey Ignashevich gifted the 2010 world champions the lead by putting through his own goal in the 12th minute but Russia levelled with a penalty by Artem Dzyuba shortly before half-time. They ran themselves into the ground for the rest of the 120 minutes to earn the shootout.
Russia’s four marksmen all scored but Koke saw Spain’s third kick saved by Russian captain Igor Akinfeyev and Iago Aspas saw his fifth kick pushed wide. Akinfeyev was voted man of the match but responded: “I don’t consider myself the man of the match, that’s our fans and our team.”
The Sbornaja reached the last eight without the supporting presence of President Vladimir Putin whose absence since the Opening Match might now be considered a lucky omen.
Coach Stanislav Cherchesov had decided to leave Spain-raised Denys Cheryshev on the subs’ bench. The coincidence did not go unnoticed that this followed revelations by the player’s father of his past use of a growth hormone.
Spain started slowly, stroking the ball around in characteristic style, taking stock of the stadium, the atmosphere, the opposition. Almost immediately Cherchesov was off his bench and on to the edge of his technical as Russia forced the first corner.
That assault came to nothing and thus Spain took the lead in the 12th minute. Raiding rightback Nacho was yanked off his feet by Yury Zhirkov and Marco Asensio’s free kick was deflected into goal by Ignashevich who had been trying to hold Sergio Ramos at bay.
Both teams, as the first half ran on, struggled to come to grips with the pitch which cut up badly and appeared to have been over-watered in misguided compensation, prompting players on both sides to slip and slide.
The game had running for 35 minutes before Roman Zobnin fashioned enough space and time to deliver the first deliberate shot of the match, which flew wide of David De Gea’s left-hand post.
Russia pressed again and were rewarded with an equaliser from the penalty spot. Alexander Samedevov’s right-wing corner was headed goalwards by Dzyuba but was blocked by the upraised arm of Gerard Pique – as if the Barcelona defender were trying to halt traffic.
Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers booked Pique, dismissed a raft of Spanish protests and Dzyuba duly thumped home the penalty.
The second half saw both Cherchesov and opposite number Fernado Hierro bring on all three allotted substitutes but little in the way of serious goal opportunities even though Spain camped in the Russian half for long periods, content to play keep-ball.
Akinfeyev pulled off a sharp late diving save from substitute Andreas Iniesta before Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers signalled extra time. This saw Russia record a small piece of World Cup history by introducing a fourth substitute for the first time in the finals when Alesandr Erokhin replaced Dair Kuziaev.
In the second half Spain had an appeal for holding at a free kick rejected by a quick reference to the video referee team before they fell through the shootout trapdoor.