FIFA World Cup 2018: Russia bid to rediscover mojo for Spain showdown
Key Russian medio Dzagoev available as hosts play first FIFA World Cup knockout round match against Spain in post-Soviet era
A little over a fortnight ago, Russia were rated as one of the weakest sides at the World Cup. An early exit loomed for Stanislav Cherchesov’s team and even Russians didn’t think the team would go far.
Come Sunday at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia are set to play their first ever knockout match at the World Cup in the post-Soviet era.
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Such has been the impact of the team that Russian fans have been swarmed all venues, flying flags and chorusing of ‘Russ-e-ya’. The chant’s been heard at all the grounds, irrespective of who are playing.
Russia began with a 5-0 victory against Saudi Arabia and defeated Egypt 3-1. The high-fliers then got a jolt against Uruguay who eased to a 3-0 win in the last group game.
Against Spain, Russia start as rank underdogs. But as forward Artem Dzyuba puts it, ‘any team can beat anyone on a good day’.
“It’s going to be like a world title boxing fight; an experienced fighter against a young and daring one. Let’s see who’s better,” he told reporters in Moscow on Friday.
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“We understand what to do against Spain, but, of course, they’re clear favourites. We know it’s going to be hard. Uruguay taught us a good lesson,” he added.
A major boost for Russia has been the return to training of influential attacking midfielder Alan Dzagoev. The CSKA Moscow lynchpin was out with a hamstring injury just a few minutes into the opener against Saudi Arabia. But the team has coped admirably and now it has to be seen whether Dzagoev get a start.
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Aleksandr Golovin is likely to operate behind the lone striker, expected to be Dzyuba, with Denis Cheryshev playing on the left flank.
They will, however, miss right-back Igor Smolnikov, who was sent off against Uruguay.
Spain, on the other hand, have shown a few chinks in their armour. A 3-3 draw against Portugal was followed by a nervy 1-0 win over Iran. They almost ended up losing 2-1 to Morocco but for a late equaliser for Iago Aspas.
David de Gea, their ever-reliable No. 1, has also been far from his best letting in five goals from three games.
Defensively, it has been a campaign in stark contrast to the one in 2010, where Spain conceded just two goals on way to winning the World Cup.
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“We finished top of the group but not by playing the best football, or the football you expect from us. We have to be self-critical,” said midfielder Thiago Alcantara in Friday’s press conference.
“We won’t be playing against 11 Russians but thousands of them, in front of a packed stadium,” he said.
Despite their defensive issues during the group stages, stand-in coach Fernando Hierro is expected to keep the faith on his back four of Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba, with De Gea behind them.
Diego Costa and Isco have been among Spain’s leading lights so far but it remains to be seen who will join them in attack.
Aspas, Rodrigo and Marco Asensio will be strong contenders for a start especially because there have been question marks over David Silva after his unconvincing showings so far.
Andres Iniesta has been a shadow of his former self and Hierro could be tempted to start Koke to offer the maestro more freedom. Sergio Busquets’ starting position though is also unlikely to come into question.
Spain will be confident of their chances against Russian side but accidents have happened at this World Cup and the former champions would be wary of being ambused in Moscow.