Russia defy expectations vs. Spain as hosts' fairy-tale run continues to quarterfinals
MOSCOW -- Stanislav Cherchesov, the coach of Russia's national team, thought for only a moment about the question -- How do you feel? -- before staring straight ahead and answering.
"My emotions are simple," he said. "The match is now over, and I'm already thinking about the next game."
He was pretty much the only one.
On the field, Igor Akinfeev, the Russian goalkeeper and hero in the penalty shootout, threw his hands in the air with glee. In the dressing room, Fedor Smolov danced on a table as his teammates sang long and loud. On the streets, the Russian fans shrieked and shouted and reveled in the glow of victory well into the night.
Russia's win over Spain in the round of 16, 4-3 on penalties after a 1-1 draw, will be remembered here -- by soccer aficionados and casual observers alike -- as a crowning achievement, an incredible accomplishment for a team expected to deliver mostly disappointment. But it will also go down as a historic example of a thoughtful, disciplined group of players with a plan taking down an established power who never quite rose to the moment.
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Yes, sure, Spain's lethargy and inefficiency with the ball -- they passed it more than 1,100 times but barely threatened the Russian goal -- will be part of the story, but Cherchesov's lack of (outward) emotion shouldn't cloud the fact that he delivered a game plan that set his team up for the best chance at pulling the upset.
And then his players went out and did just that.
"Let us say this openly," Cherchesov said. "They are better than us in many ways. So, I don't believe we should risk going forward. ... Had we chosen different tactics, we would not have fared as well."
The basic premise of Cherchesov's strategy was simple: let Spain pass themselves into oblivion so long as the Russian players kept the ball in front of them. To help, Cherchesov started three central defenders and five players at the back, setting up a formidable barrier that spent most of the game simply sliding side to side as the Spanish poked and prodded but never truly lunged.
"We knew that Spain would play the ball, and we left it to them," Aleksandr Golovin said. "We were prepared for this. We knew that we would keep them as far away from the penalty area as possible."
Cherchesov also knew this approach would take some work. So, in the days leading up to the match, he approached each player personally, he said, speaking one-on-one so as to explain how that player would fit into the larger plan.
He left Denis Cheryshev, who scored three goals in Russia's first two games, on the bench to start, opting instead for a more compact formation. Speed also clearly wasn't a priority; on defense, Chercheshov used Sergey Ignashevich, a 38-year-old rugged defender who scored an own-goal to give Spain the lead but then employed his rough-and-tumble approach to great effect as the Spanish forays forward kept fizzling out.
Of course, without Akinfeev, the plan would have failed. The veteran goalkeeper, who is also the team's captain, was outstanding, commanding his penalty area and making important stops when Spain mustered their few chances.
With the game tied at 1 and only five minutes remaining, Akinfeev dived low to his right to palm away a shot from Andres Iniesta that seemed destined for the corner. Then, in the shootout, he saved a weak penalty from Koke and pulled off a miraculous stop on Iago Aspas to seal the win, flicking the ball away with his foot as he fell to the side.
The celebrations began before the ball had even come to rest. The fans at Luzhniki, who had patiently watched their team spend two hours staying tight and rarely coming forward, exploded. Russia, who many thought would be eliminated after the group stage, now have every reason to believe they can equal South Korea's stunning run to the semifinals as hosts in 2002.
And while Chercheshov may not have been overflowing with emotion, his players didn't quite share his stoicism.
"It's an incredible feeling," Golovin said. "To be honest, I do not even know what to do right now. We are in some kind of dream, a fairy tale."
Sam Borden is a Global Sports Correspondent for ESPN, also covering soccer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamBorden.