Few things match the generosity of the fans of an underdog. With every little victory, whether achieved resoundingly or narrowly, there’s a collective sigh of relief and gratitude of having made it so far, of having their loyalty and presence repaid. There’s a niggling doubt, though - a certainty even - that their team’s luck and resolve will run out. There’s only so far that a wave of nation-wide goodwill can match the other team’s more persistent, long-honed efforts.
But Stanislav Cherchesov’s Russia, gathering strength from its fans in the capital city, ensured a gladiatorial battle to wrest an unbelievable win against one of the tournament favourites Spain.
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The European nation, seeking to rewrite its luck against any host nation (the side’s ill-fate with hosts started against Guiseppe Mezza-inspired Italy in 1934), failed to create many openings, despite enjoying the bulk of possession.
Fernando Hierro’s, the caretaker manager, decision to add the workmanlike qualities of Koke and Marcos Asensio over the inventive brilliance of Andres Iniesta and Thiago Alcantara in the midfield defied logic, and Spain paid a heavy price for it.
In the end it was a game of Russian Roulette and the host’s held its nerves, converting its first four penalties, while Spain missed two of its five.
Early on, Isco, with his creative comrades missing, drove the initial Spanish play with Russia failing on its plan to squeeze the game. Nacho, showing his virtue with some tireless running, earned a free-kick on the right in the 11th minute and Asensio’s curler was bundled in for a own goal by Sergey Ignashevich who was involved in a game of wrestling with Sergio Ramos, the original enfant terrible .
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The extra defensive duties offered by the two newcomers allowed Spain to control the game with its midfield purring on to enjoy 75 percent of possession, but the team had only three shots on target to show for its trouble (in the first half).
The host’s only way to the game was set pieces and the Spanish goalkeeper, David De Gea, was soon beaten when Artem Dzyuba converted a penalty in the 42nd minute after Gerard Pique used his dangling arm to block the goal-scorer’s header from an Alexander Samedov corner.
Spain, refusing to give up on its passing game for a more direct approach, continued its drilling of the opposition defence, but Russia’s closing down of space left it with few openings to test Igor Akinfeev as the second session started in similar pace. The substitution of Dzyuba, who had troubled the Spanish defence with his aerial prowess, gave a breather to the visiting team, which pressed high with all its 10 outfield players – at times – occupying space in the Russian half.
As the Iberians grew desperate, trying a more direct approach to goal, Iniesta came close – collecting a chested pass from the fellow second-half substitute Iago Aspas – but a diving Akinfeev brilliantly turned away his snapshot from outside the box.
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Spain pushed and prodded as the game moved into this World Cup’s first extra-time, but the home defence had its men behind, allowing the ball-players little room to maneuver as we inched towards the penalties.
Iniesta got the proceedings started, sending the goalkeeper the wrong way before side-footing the ball into the target, his last piece of action as Spain’s all-purpose hero.
From then on, it was Akinfeev who emerged as the champion, first diving to his right to keep out the effort of Koke, before denying Aspas with his feet, as the World Cup witnessed yet another fairytale and Russia 2018 lost one more of the so-called purebred teams.