Host Russia, which has already exceeded expectations by making it past the group stage, was given a reality check by Uruguay in its final group game. The team’s last-16 match against 2010 World champion Spain, one of the favourites this time round, promises to be much the same.
Coach Stanislav Cherchesov will bank on the home support at the massive Luzhniki Stadium, which might have the Russian President, Vladimir Putin in attendance. The host ensured qualification after two convincing wins over Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two teams with hardly any footballing lineage. Spain will prove to be a much tougher opposition despite a rather mediocre performance throughout the group stage.
With Fernando Hierro taking over as the caretaker manager, following the unceremonious dismissal of Julen Lopetegui, Spain was undone by some Cristiano Ronaldo brilliance in its first game, settling for a 3-3 draw, but has since struggled to get the desired results against weaker opponents Iran and Morocco.
The team’s goalkeeper, David de Gea, has come under increased criticism, with his confidence visibly shaken following his contribution to one of Ronaldo’s strike in Spain’s opening night of the World Cup, Hierro, however, has backed the Manchester United goalkeeper and said: “Yes, [De Gea] will play. I respect the opinions of everyone, but the one who makes the decisions is us, I have a lot of clear ideas for the match against Russia.”
Spain’s defensive discipline, though, is a cause for concern and the manager said: “We know how Russia plays, the leading strikers, the air balls that are very dangerous. These are their characteristics in general but they also play in their stadium and with their fans.”
Spain, with gifted players like Isco, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos and David Silva in the ranks, will look to employ the physical ruggedness of Diego Costa upfront to counter Russia’s muscular game.
The host, ranked 70 in the world, expects to reintroduce forward Alan Dzagoev, who was injured in the team’s 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia in the same stadium, but will miss the services of Igor Smolnikov, who was sent off in the game against Uruguay.