Russia stun underwhelming Spain on penalties after tough night in Moscow
MOSCOW -- Three points from a wild last-16 game as hosts Russia eliminated Spain on penalties.
1. Russia pull off the upset
There were moments of tension (and moments for dozing). There was drama (and plenty of blank stares). There was lots and lots and lots (and lots) of passing. And then, in the end, there were penalties.
You have to say it wasn't the recipe for one of the most visually compelling games in soccer's pantheon, but you can also say this: It produced a stunning upset.
Russia, the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, beat Spain 4-3 on penalties after a 1-1 draw in 120 minutes to advance to the quarterfinals. The home team, whom many picked to go out in the group stage, will face either Croatia or Denmark next as they seek to equal South Korea's stunning run to the semifinals as hosts in 2002. Spain, meanwhile, will be left to rue another World Cup disappointment. And while this one may not be as embarrassing as their elimination before the knockout rounds in Brazil four years ago, it will sting all the same.
By all measures, Spain should have won. They completed 1,029 passes to Russia's 202 and dominated possession throughout. They had the more talented players and more experience. They had the pedigree.
Yet none of it was enough. Spain's only goal came from an own goal by Sergey Ignashevich and Russia's five defenders at the back flummoxed Spain throughout. Even worse, there was no urgency, no drive from Fernando Hierro's players even as the game wore on. By extra time, it felt like penalties were inevitable -- an outcome Russia were only too happy to see.
Once there, one still might have favored Spain, but Koke's weak shot was easily saved by Igor Akinfeev and,after Aleksandar Golovin and Denis Cheryshev converted, Iago Aspas's effort was flicked away by Akinfeev's boot to send the crowd at Luzhniki Stadium into full-throated delirium. Spain's players simply stared off into the distance, left to wonder what could have been.
2. Spain miss an incredible opportunity
As the knockout round brackets were formed, it seemed clear that Spain should be seen as the big winner: paired with teams like Denmark, Croatia, Sweden, Switzerland and England on their side of the bracket, the Spanish suddenly looked like favorites to make the final despite their pre-tournament coaching drama.
And yet, then the games started. Spain's best performance was a 3-3 draw with Portugal in the opener but they declined from there, never displaying the cutting edge a real favorite should. And so even with favorites like Brazil, France and Belgium on the opposite side of the draw, there was always a lingering feeling that Spain might stumble.
Stumble they did, too, largely because of a muddled defense and some woeful finishing. In 2010, Spain scored only seven goals on its way to the title but here, Sergio Ramos & Co. could never defend well enough to rely on such little output at the other end.
The opening goal against Russia wasn't one they scored themselves, and after Russia leveled with a penalty just before half time, Spain were confronted with a staggering statistic: Their opponents had scored on six of seven on-target shots taken at this tournament, remarkable considering the names in Spain's defense and the stature of its goalkeeper, David de Gea.
Even late on Sunday, when the lottery of penalties was approaching, the casual giveaways from stalwarts like Ramos and Gerard Pique were shocking. (Pique also gave away the penalty, on a clear handball, that allowed Russia to even the game.)
It was not only the defense, though. Hierro opted to keep Andres Iniesta on the bench at the start, preferring a speedier midfield, but then watched as his attackers, Isco and Diego Costa, received little service, running in between the Russian defenders only to watch passes in their direction arrive weakly or not at all.
The failure in penalties was only the final straw. Spain had lost this game -- and squandered this golden opportunity -- far earlier.
3. Russia believes they aren't done yet
Midway through the second half, the Russian fans at the Luzhniki took a break from their chanting and singing to engage in a modified version of the "thunderclap" made famous by the Iceland faithful. It was oddly timed and somewhat disjointed, but the fans, despite the tension of a tied game, laughed and cheered themselves, reveling in the moment.
It was understandable. This match, a knockout-round game against a European juggernaut in the country's national stadium, was like a final for Russia, who were the lowest-ranked team in the tournament yet still won two of their group stage games to advance to an elimination match at the World Cup for the first time in 32 years.
The Russians did not quite match the brilliance of their play in the tournament opener, when Cheryshev scored twice and they ran Saudi Arabia ragged, but their performance against Spain was calculated all the same.
Content to let Spain pass itself silly in the midfield, Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov set his players deep in their own half and saw them defend well, employing force -- there were plenty of late tackles chipping at Spanish ankles -- as well as patience. During their few chances to break, Russia's more skilled players, like Golovin, surged forward but a dynamic finishing touch was hard to find.
Still, they had a plan and executed it flawlessly, taking their chances on penalties and then converting each of them with aplomb. When Akinfeev ran forward after Spain's final miss, his teammates slid in front of him as the stands at Luzhniki shook.
The Russians have already farther than anyone expected. With either Croatia or Denmark awaiting in the quarterfinals, they will have every reason to think they are not done yet.
Sam Borden is a Global Sports Correspondent for ESPN, also covering soccer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamBorden.