MOSCOW — Before the start of Sunday’s World Cup match at Luzhniki Stadium, a morbid round-of-16 game that belied the entertaining spirit of a sensational tournament, fans in one end unfurled a giant banner in Russian that translated to: “You were born to make a fairy tale come true.”
Some three hours later, Russian dreams were, indeed, closer to coming true — although it took a nightmarish display of soccer to get there.
The lowest-seeded team in the competition took a defensive posture and never broke from it, dragging technically superior but unimaginative Spain through a 120-minute, 1-1 draw before prevailing in a penalty-kick tiebreaker, 4-3.
Igor Akinfeev made two saves in the shootout, including the clincher in the fifth round. Diving to his right on Iago Aspas’s bid, he deflected the shot with his trailing left foot, touching off wild celebrations on the field, in the stands, throughout the capital city and beyond.
And so Russia, with limited skill but unlimited discipline and heart, advanced to a quarterfinal Saturday in Sochi against Croatia. Three weeks ago, there was real doubt about whether this team would advance out of the group stage. Now, in the lighter side of the knockout bracket, the hosts could take another step or two.
People poured out of their homes, as well as restaurants and bars in central Moscow, where they began chanting, “Ros-si-ya!” Even members of the police, usually a much-feared force whom Muscovites try to avoid, joined in the street celebrations, honking their horns in return. People of all ages made their way to Red Square, where they chanted, “We’re the champions!”
Groups of young men, their faces painted with the tricolor Russian flag, sang “Katyusha,” a patriotic song made popular during World War II. Men stripped to their underwear and dived into fountains. A large group gathered near the Kremlin, where they sang the national anthem.
Akinfeev was named the man of the match, but when asked about the honor, he said, “The man of the match is the team and our fans.”
Spain, the 2010 champion and a serious contender here, was never able to solve the Russian resistance. In failing to do so, it joined Germany, Argentina and Portugal as titans of the game that booked early flights home.
The Spaniards’ exit was eerily similar to 2002, when host country South Korea ousted them on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals. On Sunday, they had gone ahead on an own goal in the 12th minute, but despite overwhelming possession, they couldn’t manage another goal and conceded the equalizer late in the first half.
From there, thanks to Russia’s tactics and Spain’s shortcomings, the game turned into a chess match. Except chess would have been more entertaining. Spain is a possession team, so Russia let it possess — and little else.
“They are better than us in many ways, so I don’t believe we should risk going forward,” Russian Coach Stanislav Cherchesov said. “Had we chosen a different tactic, we would not have fared as well.”
Said Spanish Coach Fernando Hierro: “We had to have patience and character. We did everything we could for the match not to go to the shootout. It was hard. It’s difficult to attack a team with 11 players sitting in the back. Defensively, they are extremely strong and well-organized.”
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Spain seemed on the right path after its early goal. From the right of the penalty area, Marco Asensio targeted Sergio Ramos on the back side. Ramos is well known for creating chaos and, with the ball in flight, he tangled with Sergey Ignashevich. The Russian defender, who will turn 39 on July 14, never turned around. As he fell on Ramos, his back kick with the left foot produced a solid volley to the far corner.
Despite the deficit, Russia continued to sit back. So Spain tapped the ball around, sometimes playing it back to goalkeeper David De Gea, drawing derisive whistles. But who could blame the whistlers? With the ball and 78 percent of first-half possession, there was little incentive to take chances or risk a giveaway.
Cherchesov did not budge with his plan to absorb and counter, maybe test Spain on a set piece.
Spain did have reason to press for another goal before halftime: to kill the game. A Russian anomaly threatened to level the match, but two goals? Unlikely.
The Russians gained traction late in the half and, after Aleksandr Golovin threatened but missed, the equalizer came off a corner kick, handball and penalty kick.
Rising with Gerard Pique for a header, Artem Dzyuba directed the ball toward the target. Pique’s back was to Dzyuba, and his left arm was raised when the ball struck his hand — a clear penalty.
Dzyuba converted in the 41st minute, validating Cherchesov’s tactics and energizing the sellout crowd of 78,011.
With the score tied, the Spaniards returned to probing for opportunity. They did not play with great urgency, though, moving the ball slowly and deliberately without any grand ideas.
The 67th-minute introduction of Andres Iniesta, Spain’s longtime maestro who retired from international soccer after the match, offered hope that someone could unlock Russia’s blockade. But Spain wasn’t good enough with the ball and continued to fail.
Keeping their shape and poise, the Russians seemed to shrug and say, “We can do this all day.”
If it weren’t for the involvement of the home country — and an emotional attachment for most of the spectators, including Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin and his wife, Nastya — the stadium might have turned into the world’s largest napping room.
Spain threatened in the 85th minute, but Akinfeev dived right to stop Iniesta’s 20-yard effort, then went left to push aside Aspas’s angled bid off the rebound. At the whistle ending regulation, Russian supporters roared — certainly not for the quality of play, but for their team pushing superior Spain to the limit.
Akinfeev, who has spent his entire 15-year club career with CSKA Moscow, was the difference in the shootout. While his teammates were perfect, he blocked Koke’s attempt in the third round and somehow got a foot on Aspas’s try.
As the celebration unfolded, a banner made its way onto the field for the players to parade around. In Russian, it read, “We are playing for you.”
— Steven Goff
Amie Ferris-Rotman and Anton Troianovski contributed.
Here’s how the penalty kicks broke down:
1-1: Andres Iniesta puts the ball in the net for Spain and Fedor Smolov does the same for Russia.
2-2: Gerard Pique’s kick is good and so is the attempt by Sergey Ignashevich.
2-3: The first big break occurs as Igor Akinfeev stops Koke and Aleksandr Golovin’s kick is good.
3-4: Sergio Ramos and Denis Cheryshev both convert.
3-4: Akinfeev gets a foot on Iago Aspas’s kick and it’s all over. Russia is through to the next round, bouncing Spain from the tournament.
The upset is one of historic proportions. Russia entered the World Cup with the lowest FIFA ranking (70) of any team in the field of 32 and FIFA reported it was the third-biggest upset in terms of ranking differential (60; Spain came in at 10 in the FIFA rankings) in World Cup history. It is the biggest upset in the knockout stage.
(South Africa-France in the 2010 group stage was the biggest upset, with a ranking difference of 74; Nigeria-Spain in the 1998 group stage was the second biggest with a 70 ranking differential.)
Players on Russia’s bench urge fans to cheer even louder and, in the 114th minute, the game gets chippy as players jostle for position in front of the net. It gets physical, but referees and VAR determine there’s no infraction to be called.
This feels for all the world as if it’s headed to penalty kicks. Spain has its chances in the second 15-minute session but is repeatedly frustrated by Russia’s defense.
Neither team can break through in the second half and we’re headed into extra time, two 15-minute sessions.
If the score is still tied after that, the teams would go to penalty kicks.
The second half is underway with the score tied and the loser going home, in case you’d forgotten that this is the knockout stage. Spain is controlling the ball in the early stages of the second half, but just keeps passing the ball and is at a loss against Russia’s pressing defense. The crowd reacts with boos.
Artem Dzyuba ties it on a penalty kick in the 41st minute, sending his kick into the net as David De Gea dives the wrong way. Not only does the kick tie the score, but it also seems to energize Russia just before both teams head to the locker room. The Russian players aren’t the only ones finding new energy: the crowd is into the game now, too.
The kick comes after Gerard Pique gets a yellow card when he and a gaggle of players leap for a kick in front of the net and it strikes Pique’s hand.
Russia finally gets something going in the 35th minute, but Roman Zobnin’s shot sails just wide. Spain maintains its 1-0 lead, which came on an own goal coming off an attempt by Sergio Ramos on a free kick in the 11th minute.
Sergey Ignashevich was in the cluster in front of the net and the ball glanced in off him. The free kick came after Yury Zhirkov was called for colliding with Nacho.
Ovechkin celebrates again
Vladimir Putin isn’t in Luzhniki Stadium, but Alex Ovechkin, recent hoister of the Stanley Cup along with the Washington Capitals, is. He and his wife, Nastasiya Ovechkina, seem pretty pleased with the win.
Ovechkin isn’t the only hockey guy rooting for Russia, either.
- Previous results: Tied Portugal 3-3; beat Iran 1-0; tied Morocco 2-2.
- Best World Cup finish: Champions, 2010.
- Notable: Under Hierro, Spain has not played as well as it did under Julen Lopetegui, who was fired just two days before Spain opened World Cup play against Portugal. He was fired after news leaked that he had agreed to become Real Madrid’s coach after the World Cup.
- FIFA world ranking: 10. ELO world ranking: 2.
- Previous results: Beat Saudi Arabia 5-0; beat Egypt 3-1; lost, 3-0, to Uruguay.
- Best World Cup finish: Fourth place, 1966.
- Notable: Russia’s first-game explosion gave it the most goals and best goal differential in the tournament, and it’s already in the round of 16 — a nifty accomplishment for a team that former player Andrei Kanchelskis called “the worst Russian team I have ever seen” before play began.
- FIFA world ranking: 70. ELO world ranking: 45.
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