Russia captain Igor Akinfeev emerged a hero yesterday as the hosts stunned Spain 4-3 on penalties after they played out a 1-1 draw at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium in a dramatic World Cup last-16 tie.
Akinfeev, pictured inset, had already made good saves as Russia held on to force extra-time and spot-kicks – and he then saved from Koke and Iago Aspas in the shootout.
It was a remarkable finale to a game Spain dominated in terms of possession but simply did not do enough to win and Russia can now look forward to a quarter-final next Saturday in Sochi against Croatia.
Before the World Cup started, many feared that the home nation’s hopes would be dashed within a matter of days. After all, they were the lowest ranked team in the tournament, way down in 70th. But their involvement now extends into a fourth weekend.
“I just feel emptied out,” Akinfeev said. “Over the whole second half and extra-time we were defending our goal and managed it, we were hoping for penalties because Spain are hard to beat. Spain can’t always be lucky.”
The result gave Russia their greatest win for ten years, since an extra-time victory over the Netherlands in a European Championship quarterfinal when Akinfeev was also in goal. That run was ended days later by a Spain team beginning their era of dominance.
Spain, though, have now failed to win a knockout game at three major tournaments since they won the 2012 European Championship, their third straight major title after Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup.
It was too passive a performance by the Spanish, who were ranked tenth and one of the pre-tournament favourites. Turmoil erupted two days before their opening game, when the federation fired head coach Julen Lopetegui because he had accepted an offer to coach Real Madrid after the tournament. It is unclear if interim coach Fernando Hierro will continue in the post he did not seek before Lopetegui was sent home.
“There is a lot of pain in the delegation, the players, the coaching staff,” Hierro told reporters afterwards. “We had great hopes for this World Cup and it was not to be. There are 15 players who have given everything, I have absolutely no complaint.
“This is football. We had more possession, got to their area much more. We understand that in these moments you have to be effective.”
Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov dropped Spanish-based winger Denis Cheryshev and went with five at the back. The limitations of this became obvious almost immediately, when Aleksandr Golovin scampered down the wing in the fourth minute but had nobody to cross to – he held on and settled for a corner.
Spain, meanwhile, passed and passed and passed. And then in the 11th minute, right-back Nacho was fouled just outside the Russian box, giving Marco Asensio no excuse whatsoever but to deliver a ball into the box.
The Real Madrid star did so and it was a fine delivery, but not as good as Sergey Ignashevich made it look. A fortnight short of his 39th birthday, the CSKA stopper is old enough to know you need to watch the ball. Sadly, he had eyes only for Sergio Ramos, who he successfully wrestled to the floor only for the ball to cannon off his heel for a comical own goal.
The 2010 world champions continued to pass amongst themselves, creating little. In contrast, the Russians were roused.
On 41 minutes, Ramos scuffed a clearance to give Russia their third corner. It was delivered to Artem Dzyuba, who met it firmly with his head only for Gerard Pique to bat it down, volleyball style. The crowd roared, Pique howled, the referee pointed to the spot and the VAR whispered his approval.
Dzyuba then smashed the ball home for the game’s first shot on target and his third goal of the tournament. Suddenly it was 1-1.
Spain finished the half with a burst of activity, registering a couple of efforts, but the next 40 minutes were turgid, a state of affairs not helped by the 25-degree temperature.
Cherchesov tried to freshen things up by bringing on Cheryshev and swapping the tiring Dzyuba for Fedor Smolov, while Spain coach Hierro called for Anders Iniesta and Aspas.
And it was those two who nearly won it for Spain with five minutes to go, when first Iniesta and then Aspas fired shots at Akinfeev’s goal – only for the skipper to parry both away.
That was the last meaningful action of regular time, which meant Russia were extending their World Cup by at least half an hour and Spain had still not beaten a host nation at a major championship in 90 minutes. They had, however, out-passed the home side 845 to 224.
Six minutes into bonus time, Russia took advantage of the new rule allowing a fourth sub in extra-time, bringing on history-maker Aleksandr Erokhin to help some tired legs in midfield.
Spain soon made their fourth change, too, introducing Valencia forward Rodrigo. These changes said much about the two teams’ ambitions at this point: Russia hanging on for penalties, Spain cursing themselves for still being out there.
Rodrigo nearly won it five minutes later, when he beat his man with a dummy, sprinted into the box and fired a shot Akinfeev again did well to save.
Five minutes after that, Spain’s players were baying for VAR after more grappling in the box. The noise that erupted when the referee finally waved played on was immense but was capped by the roar that greeted the final whistle and penalties.
Iniesta stepped up first and scored, Smolov replied but David De Gea got a fingertip to it. Pique scored his and Ignashevich, who was superb after his own goal, coolly replied. Akinfeev then saved Koke’s effort, before Golovin, Ramos and Cheryshev scored theirs, meaning Aspas had to score. He did not and Russia went wild.
Russia manager Cherchesov, who had received a good luck phone call from President Vladimir Putin a few hours before the game, heaped praise on his squad.
“Players will not do things just because the coach says so. They have to feel it and tonight they did it,” he said. “To be a strong team is one thing, but you have to be the best on the pitch.
“Tonight, we were that team at the right place at the right time.”
By the end of extra-time Fifa’s in-game analysis had shown that Spain’s players successfully passed to each other 1,029 times – a World Cup record for completed passes in a game. They’d had 74 per cent of possession in a pretty one-sided affair. But Cherchesov was right; the Russian players were in the right place at the right time. And so the adventure continues.