Russia’s impressive start to the World Cup took a downward turn as they had a man sent off and were easily defeated by Uruguay, whose victory means they top Group A, and leaves the hosts entering the last 16 as group runners-up.
There was a party atmosphere around the scorching Samara Arena before kick-off, with fans having travelled from all over the country keen to share in the good feeling surrounding their national team.
Russia had scored eight goals in sweeping victories over Saudi Arabia and Egypt and were already guaranteed to progress, but they went behind in their final group match after only 10 minutes when Luis Suarez drilled in a clever low free-kick.
It got worse for Stanislav Cherchesov’s side when a Diego Laxalt effort from 25 yards was deflected in by Denis Cheryshev, leaving his keeper Igor Akifneev stranded and in the position of having conceded three goals at the tournament without making a save.
Akinfeev did then come out to block a Rodrigo Bentancur chance, with Roman Zobnin just scrambling the rebound clear of Edinson Cavani, before Igor Smolnikov picked up a second yellow card and was sent off 35 minutes into his World Cup debut.
After the break, Russia’s 10 men composed themselves and at least managed to wrest back some control of the match, with Uruguay always looking dangerous but perhaps happy to concede possession and protect their lead.
The hosts were rewarded with their best chances of the match, the first to Artem Dzuba, who fired wildly over the bar from inside the box, the second by Fedor Smelov, who dazzled to find space in behind the Uruguay defence but failed to pick out a team-mate with what looked to be an easy cut-back.
But the final word was left to Cavani, who put several earlier misses behind him to get his first goal of the tournament by stabbing in from close range after an Akinfeev parry.
Both teams will find out their last 16 opponents later this evening, with Uruguay set to play the Group B runners-up, and Russia the Group B winners.
Current Group B leaders Spain play Morocco, who are already eliminated.
Second-placed Portugal faces Iran, who must win if they are to reach the knockout stage for the first time in their history.
Russia’s party atmosphere falls flat
You could say this was the first time Russia had faced quality opposition at this tournament, and for many, the manner of this defeat will mark them out as vulnerable in the next round.
Right from the outset, and even at the end when there was very little hope of a comeback emerging, there was much of the same remarkable vocal support from the stands. But on the pitch, there was very little of the dynamism we saw from Russia’s players in their opening two victories.
Almost every set-piece was delivered too long, and there were so many key sloppy passes – like Yuri Gazinskiy’s to begin the passage of play that led to Suarez scoring from a free-kick – or Mario Fernandes’ when for once early in the second half Uruguay looked like they might be opened up.
Perhaps the fact that Russia, the lowest ranked team here at 70 in the world, started this game having already qualified affected their approach. Perhaps it was the oppressive heat. Midfielder Aleksandr Golovin, one of their best performers here so far, was also rested.
What is certain is that now, having finished second, Russia will play their next match at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, where they beat Saudia Arabia 5-0 in the tournament’s opening match. It will be another sell-out partisan crowd.
However, it is likely that their opponents there will be Spain – with the 2010 World Cup winners expected to secure their place as Group B winners with a victory over Morocco later this evening, although Portugal could top the group with a better result against Iran.