Hosts Russia must rebound quickly for Sunday’s World Cup last-16 clash with Spain, the 2010 champions who have slipped under the radar after a tumultuous start to the tournament.
Resounding wins over Saudi Arabia and Egypt elevated expectations for Stanislav Cherchesov’s side before they were dealt a dose of reality in a 3-0 loss to Uruguay.
Dismissed as no-hopers little over a fortnight ago, Russia will try to get back on board a wave of national euphoria and pull off what striker Artem Dzyuba called a “minor miracle”.
They make their first World Cup knockout stage appearance in the post-Soviet era as the ultimate underdogs.
While Russia arrived at the finals winless in eight months before finding some badly-needed form, one of their better results in that period came in a 3-3 draw with Spain last November.
For Sergei Ignashevich, one of three players remaining from the Russia side that lost to Spain in the semi-finals of Euro 2008, there are no secrets about their upcoming opponents.
“Spain plays the same style as in previous years,” said the 38-year-old defender. “Spanish defenders play very high leaving spaces that a counter-attacking team can use. This is probably their only weak spot if they have any.”
Russia will return to the Luzhniki Stadium, having played their opening match at the iconic venue, and will lean on fervent support to go in search of a famous win.
“The fact that the game will be at Luzhniki Stadium with almost 80,000 people supporting us is probably the only good consequence from the fact we finished second in our group,” said Ignashevich.
Spain have not lost a match since Euro 2016, although they have looked far from convincing after the chaos that saw coach Julen Lopetegui sacked before their first game.
They needed a last-gasp equaliser from Iago Aspas in a 2-2 draw with Morocco to pip Portugal to top spot in Group B, and are battling to fix a leaky defence.
“We have to get better, we haven’t produced our best football,” said Bayern Munich midfielder Thiago Alcantara.
“The most important thing for us is to set up well for the Russia game. We’re not playing 11 Russians, we’re up against thousands of Russians in a full stadium.”
Despite a centre-back pairing of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, Spain have conceded five goals in three games with goalkeeper David de Gea looking a shadow of his usual self.
No team in recent memory that has gone on to lift the trophy has conceded more than four goals, a statistic not lost on right-back Dani Carvajal.
“We’ve got to cut down on the defensive mistakes,” said Carvajal. “We’ve made it far too easy for opponents to score against us, which they’ve done more because of our errors than their brilliance.”
Fernando Hierro, the former Spain defender who took over from Lopetegui, hammered home that same point after the Morocco game.
He must hope the message belatedly gets through in time for their encounter with the tournament’s joint-second highest scorers.
Russia midfielder Alan Dzagoev has rejoined the squad after recovering from a hamstring injury.
However, Igor Smolnikov is suspended following his red card against Uruguay, with Mario Fernandes in line to replace him at right back.
And the likes of Aleksandr Golovin, Fedor Smolov and Yuri Gazinsky are all one booking away from a one-game ban.
Spain are likely to stick with No 1 David de Gea after recent criticism of the goalkeeper’s displays.
Meanwhile, Hierro could bring in Real Madrid forward Marco Asensio in place of Man City’s David Silva.
The Spain boss may also opt not to play Barcelona holding midfielder Sergio Busquets, who is one booking away from missing the quarter-finals.
- Spain have scored 10 goals in their last three games against Russia (7 in two games at Euro 2008, 3 in a friendly in November 2017)
- Spain are unbeaten in their last 23 games (W15 D8), the longest current run amongst the 32 teams at the 2018 World Cup. Their last defeat came two years ago against Italy in the round of 16 of the European Championships (0-2, June 2016)
- This is Russia’s first-ever World Cup knockout match since the breakup of the Soviet Union – at major tournaments, they’ve only played in the knockout stages once, reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2008 when they were eliminated by Spain
- Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia have kept only two clean sheets in their 12 games at the World Cup. Meanwhile, Spain have failed to find the net only once in their last 12 matches in the competition (v Chile, June 2014)
- Russia had just three shots in their last match against Uruguay, the fewest by a host nation in a World Cup match since USA against Brazil in 1994 (3). Russia also both won a match by five goals (5-0 v Saudi Arabia) and lost one by three goals (0-3 v Uruguay), the first time that had happened by such margins in a World Cup group stage since 1982, when Hungary won 10-1 against El Salvador but lost 4-1 against Argentina