The tumult following the stunning sacking of Julen Lopetegui is no longer an excuse for Spain, which needs to improve its defense to have any chance of winning a second World Cup title as it faces host Russia in the round of 16 Sunday in the nation’s capital of Moscow.
La Roja were discombobulated for most of the first two matches following Lopetegui’s firing after he had accepted the Real Madrid job without telling anyone in the Spanish federation he was negotiating with the reigning three-time Champions League winner.
Fernando Hierro, the one-time sporting director for the national team, took over the crisis-stricken club two days before the start of the World Cup, and Spain’s uneven play reflected its transition as it showed plenty of its ball-possession nous coupled with a startling lack of defensive cohesion in group play.
Spain finished atop of Group B on goals scored, netting six to Portugal’s five through the three matches as it recorded a grind-out 1-0 victory over Iran bookended by draws against Iberian rival Portugal and Morocco. Goalkeeper David De Gea, considered one of the best shot-stoppers in the world, had had a torrid time of it in Russia and did not make a save until the first half-hour of the final contest.
But La Roja are in the knockout round, a step further than their disastrous title defense in 2014 that never ignited following their crushing 5-1 loss to the Netherlands in the opener. It is the eighth time in Spain’s last 10 World Cup appearances it has progressed beyond group play as it seeks its fifth quarterfinal appearance in the last nine tournaments.
Russia took full advantage of partisan support and an incredibly weak Group A to emerge as runner-up behind Uruguay. The Sbornaya opened the World Cup with a flourish, thrashing Saudi Arabia 5-0 in a clash of the two lowest-ranked teams in the tournament and then punched their ticket with a 3-1 victory over Egypt.
But the gulf in class that Russia face in this round was on full display in its final group match against Uruguay in which the South American side corkscrewed the host into the ground with two goals inside the first half-hour and cruised to a 3-0 victory as the Sbornaya played the final 56 minutes with 10 men following a red card to Igor Smolnikov.
It is Russia’s first appearance in the knockout round since the disbanding of the former Soviet Union, which last represented the country at this stage in 1986. The Sbornaya have not been to the quarterfinals since 1970.
June 15 — Spain 3, Portugal 3 (Ronaldo 4′ (PK), Costa 24′, Ronaldo 44′, Costa 55′, Nacho 58′, Ronaldo 88′)
June 20 — Spain 1, Iran 0 (Costa 54′)
June 25 — Spain 2, Morocco 2 (Boutaib 14′, Isco 19′, En-Nesyri 81′, Aspas 90+1′)
June 14 — Russia 5, Saudi Arabia 0 (Gazinsky 12, Cheryshev 43, Dzyuba 71, Cheryshev 90+1, Golovin 90+4)
June 19 — Russia 3, Egypt 1 (Fathi 47′ (og), Cheryshev 59′, Dzyuba 62′, Salah 73′ (PK))
June 25 — Russia 0, Uruguay 3 (Suarez 10′, Cheryshev 23′ (og), Cavani 90′)
Whether you call it a 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1 or 4-1-2-2-1, Spain’s formation thrives on the areas out wide while relying on the triangle of Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets to cover large pockets of ground defensively. That strategy, though, was well exploited by both Portugal and Morocco on the counter when its multiples of talented attackers lose possession.
The one thing La Roja can do, unlike their title team in 2010, is utilize a Route One option because Diego Costa is so strong on the ball. And with 38-year-old Sergey Ignashevich in central defense for Russia, that plan of attack will certainly be in play from Andres Iniesta on the left and David Silva on the right outside the final third.
Russia will continue with its 4-2-3-1 set-up, and manager Stanislav Chercheshov’s decision to sacrifice Denis Cheryshev on 38 minutes versus Uruguay after Smolnikov was sent off could loom large in this contest because the Villarreal attacking midfielder is going to have run himself into the ground in the left channel when the Sbornaya get their opportunities on the ball.
INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES
Spain appears to have everyone healthy and available for this contest, the former evidenced by Dani Carvajal’s ability to play the full 90 minutes in the last two group matches. Busquets is the only player on a yellow card, and that will get wiped away if he does not get a second.
Russia will be without Smolnikov, who will serve his one-match ban. That will only affect the side’s depth since the right back was not part of the starting XI in the Sbornaya’s meaningful matches. Attacking midfielder Alan Dzagoev is at best doubtful for this match as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury suffered in the opener versus Saudi Arabia.
Fedor Smolov, Iury Gazinsky and Aleksandr Golovin are all on yellow cards entering this match.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Spain – David De Gea (GK)
While Spain has yielded just six shots on goal in its first three matches, De Gea’s save percentage is a brutal 16.7 percent as he has made just one save and let up five goals. Of the five, you can argue that only the howler that stood as Ronaldo’s second goal in the 3-3 draw was his fault.
Ronaldo’s other two came via a penalty and an exquisite free kick, and the two shipped versus Morocco came on a ghastly giveaway that resulted in a 1-on-1 breakaway De Gea lost and a majestic header off a corner kick he had no chance of reaching.
Even with Spain dominating possession, which will again happen in this contest, De Gea is going to need to make a quality save at some point in the match given the Sbornaya will raise their game in what will be undoubtedly a lively and raucous atmosphere in Luzhniki Stadium. If he fails to deliver that save, there is a chance La Roja’s journey could come to an unexpected end.
Russia – Artem Dzyuba (F)
Dzyuba grabbed his chance in the opener versus Saudi Arbia, scoring a goal off the bench, and didn’t look back as he added a second versus Egypt. It’s hard to blame him for not extending his streak after Russia went down a man versus Uruguay and the Sbornaya chased the match the final hour, but against a Spanish central defense pairing that has had its struggles, the Zenit St. Petersbug striker needs to be an important factor.
If Dzyuba can hold up play after getting possession with his back to goal, that can allow Cheryshev and Golovin to run underneath into the gaps that will emerge between Spain’s defenders and Busquets.
WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD
This will be the first time the sides have met in the World Cup, but it will be the fourth time they are meeting in an international tournament. Spain has won the previous three, posting a 1-0 triumph in group play at the 2004 European Championship and then twice in the 2008 edition.
La Roja recorded a 4-1 victory in group play and then a 3-0 romp in the semifinals, with Silva completing the scoreline as they went on to win the first of their back-to-back continental titles.
Russia has never beaten, claiming two draws in six all-time matches.
Per Ladbrokes, Spain is a solid favorite at 4/7 odds, with Russia a 5/1 underdog. The odds of the match being a draw and going to penalties are 13/5. For first goal-scorers, Diego Costa edges out teammate Iago Aspas as a slight favorite, with Costa getting 16/5 odds and Aspas listed at 7-2. Dzyuba is the joing top choice for punters on the Russia side at 13/2 along with Fedor Smolov.
The pressure of reaching the knockout round as host now done and dusted, the question is whether Russia will simply be happy to be in the round of 16 or give Spain a fight. While the Sbornaya do have offensive prowess, it is their defense that gives pause for concern.
While it is hard to gauge how competent it is after playing down a man for an hour against Uruguay, the 34 minutes Russia played at full strength was not very promising as La Celeste had broken them down on a set piece with Luis Suarez’s goal on a free kick given just outside the box, and an own goal from the pressure.
And Uruguay is a pragmatic offensive team as opposed to Spain, which will just build and build pressure outside the penalty area with quick passing designed to push and pull an opposing defense. When the wide backs are running in tandem with the attacking midfielders in the channels, La Roja are lethal and can do all sorts of damage as evidenced by Isco’s goal against Morocco.
But this may be a game where Costa adds to his three-goal haul. As Spain looks to stretch Russia wide on the back line, Costa can exploit single coverage against the central defenders deep in the penalty area on crosses or link up with Iniesta at the top of the penalty area and swivel quickly into shooting position.
The atmosphere at Luzhniki should be great, and Russia has definitely proven the gracious host. But the Sbornaya will be spectators hereafter as La Roja cruise to a 3-0 victory.
The winner of this match will play the winner of the Croatia-Denmark match in the quarterfinals July 7 in Sochi.