Manuel Veth reporting from Moscow –
Day 18 is in the books, and the World Cup party has finally gotten underway among Sbornaya fans after Russia shocked the world by eliminating Spain.
Stanislav Cherchesov’s master plan
“What tactics did you use to beat Spain today”, was perhaps one of the most baffling questions asked by an American colleague at the press conference. After all, Russia’s tactics were visible for everyone to see in the first two matches. At the same time, Spain lacked ideas of breaking down a Russia side that never seemed to tire physically.
#WorldCup Diary – Day 18
— Manuel Veth (@ManuelVeth) July 1, 2018
Russia’s game plan was simple. Run, run, run and run some more. Russia ran 146 km, ten kilometres more than Spain, and never seemed to tire as Spain strung together pass after pass trying to find an opening in Russia’s defence. Overall, Spain would play over 1,000 passes throughout the match but where the culmination of passes would eventually lead to an opponent making a mistake Russia were able for a full 120 minutes to close down decisive passing lanes.
Even when Spain did score it was not the result of a moment of genius but rather hard work by Sergio Ramos – the Real Madrid defender forced the 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich into a wrestling match during a Marco Asensio free-kick. As the Russian defender went to the ground, the ball awkwardly came off his foot to bounce past Igor Akinfeev to open the scoring for Spain.
It was a moment that could have undone Russia. But even as the crowd at the Luzhniki fell silent Russia kept executing their game plan and were awarded a penalty after Gerard Piqué handled the ball inside the area. Artem Dzyuba stepped up and easily converted and Spain were back to square one and eventually undone by what appeared to be 11 red Duracell Rabbits that kept going and going no matter what Spain threw at them.
Fallen heroes rise again
Denis Cheryshev, Artem Dzyuba and now Igor Akinfeev. The Russian side is full of fallen heroes using this World Cup to see their star rise once again.
The CSKA Moscow goalkeeper was excellent throughout the 120 minutes and then saved two penalties in the shootout to see his side advance. Voted the Futbolgrad Network player of the match, Akinfeev has in the past often been the source of Russia gloriously going out in previous tournaments – most recently at the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.
A technically, excellent goalkeeper Akinfeev’s career has been marked by a series of goalkeeping errors and a dubious record in the Champions League – the goalkeeper did not record a clean sheet for 43 Champions League games in a row.
Those mistakes and the Champions League record overshadow records set in the Russian Football Premier League. The leader of the prestigious Lev Yashin Award ranking – an award given to Soviet and post-Soviet keepers that have kept more than 100 clean sheets throughout their career – Akinfeev has kept 245 clean sheets – 44 for Russia – throughout his career.
The 32-year-old has now identified this tournament as a way to repair his image as a mistake-prone keeper by leading his country to the later stages of the tournament. And there is a good chance that this could happen – last night there were Igor Akinfeev chants on the streets of Moscow with the 32-year-old identified as one of the biggest heroes of this side.
The Russian party
Speaking of the streets of Moscow. The party is now entirely on in Russia. For the first time since the World Cup has been awarded to Russia, there have been whispers that this team could go all the way.
It is a remarkable turn-around given that just a few months ago nobody expected the Sbornaya to even make it out of the group stage. The involvement of Russia fans at this World Cup party has been perhaps one of the most interesting aspects at this tournament.
Their approach has slowly turned from tolerating the various foreigners, to partying with them, to then slowly celebrating their team and then to a full party last night as the streets of Moscow erupted in joy and even tears. The general sense is almost a disbelieve that this side has been able to go this far and even if Russia go out against Croatia there is now a sense that pride in the Russian national team has been restored.
That is it from Moscow today. Until tomorrow do svidaniya!
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and among others works for the Bundesliga and Pro Soccer USA. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which is available HERE. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.