2018-19 EPL Team-by-team previews: Manchester United (August 5)

(Writer’s Note: This is the 19th of what will hopefully be 20 team previews in 20 days. Or at the very least, all 20 teams prior to the 2018-19 Premier League’s season-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City on August 10. Links to previous teams can be found at the bottom of the page.)

MANCHESTER UNITED RED DEVILS

Manager: Jose Mourinho (Hire Date: May 27, 2016)
Tenure Length: 9th/20 in Premier League and 27th/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 25-6-7, 81 points, 2nd in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 68
2017-18 Goal Difference: plus-40
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League and/or First Division: 44 (including 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 1975
Last Relegation: 
1974 (First Division to Second Division)
2017-18 Champions League: Round of 16 (Sevilla)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Quarterfinal loss (Bristol City)
2017-18 FA Cup: Runner-up (Chelsea)

2017/18 REVIEW

Manchester United hit the ground running last season, rolling past West Ham United, Swansea City and Leicester City by a combined 10-0 margin as Romelu Lukaku made an instant impact with three goals in his first two matches in a United shirt. The Red Devils held out for a 2-2 draw at Stoke City, but the sprint out of the blocks resumed with six wins on the bounce — two of them to open their Champions League account.

Some of the excitement from the start was tempered when Manchester United lost influential midfielder Paul Pogba to a hamstring injury that would sideline him two months. Despite 32 goals and only three against in this 9-1-0 run to open the term, the cries of anti-football against Jose Mourinho came immediately after a lifeless 0-0 draw at Anfield against Liverpool on Oct. 14.

Mourinho set up his team pragmatically and defensively as United finished with one shot on target. Liverpool’s five shots on frame were one less than Mourinho’s side attempted all match.

The “Special One” had a flash of thunder after a 2-1 loss at promoted Huddersfield Town the following week, excoriating his team for a lack of “aggression, desire, motivation and sacrifice” despite having nearly 80 percent possession as Pogba’s absence continued to loom large. United regrouped with three wins, but another high-profile match came and went without a goal as they came up short in a 1-0 loss at his old Stamford Bridge stomping grounds.

While United never dropped below second in the table all season, it was becoming painfully clear their eternal rival Manchester City was pulling away with every match day United did not get all three points. Pogba finally returned in mid-November, making an instant impact in a 4-1 victory over Newcastle United, though it was also the first time Mourinho used Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial together.

Mourinho’s renewal of antagonisms with Arsenal counterpart Arsene Wenger for what would be their final head-to-head clash at the Emirates ended with Manchester United recording a 3-1 victory in what may have been the perfect way for Mourinho to get the better of “Le Professeur” once more. Despite allowing the Gunners to take 33 shots and have 75 percent possession, United were lethal on the counter as Antonio Valencia and Jesse Lingard scored in the first 11 minutes.

Lingard would complete his brace after the hour, and the only blemish on the victory was Pogba taking a needless red card right before the final quarter-hour. They did place atop their Champions League group with 15 points and 12 goals from their six matches, the lone blemish a 1-0 defeat at runner-up and Swiss side FC Basel.

Pogba’s absence would loom large as the first Manchester derby went blue with a 2-1 City victory that also ended United’s record-tying 40-match unbeaten run at Old Trafford. The result left United 11 points adrift of their eternal rivals after just 16 league matches, a daunting deficit.

Manchester United would regroup with back-to-back wins in league play before a stunning fifth-round Carabao Cup exit at Championship side Bristol City in which Korey Smith delivered a stoppage-time winner for the host club. That led into the congested holiday fixture list in which United ground out three draws before turning the calendar year over with a win at Everton.

The January transfer window brought in Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal while Henrikh Mkhitaryan went in the other direction, his strong start little more than a flash in the pain as his playing time was gradually cut as the season progressed. United won their first five matches in 2018 before a 2-0 loss at Tottenham Hotspur marked by the embarrassment of conceding a goal in the first 11 seconds.

By February, it was clear City would win the league, which meant United could turn their attention to the Champions League. Mourinho played a classic pragmatic first-leg tie at Sevilla and got what was needed with a scoreless draw in which his team had only one shot on target and six overall.

The Red Devils won their next three on the bounce in league play, beating Chelsea and Liverpool at home around a victory at Crystal Park. But any dreams of a deep Champions League run to offset not being able to catch Manchester City fell apart with a shocking 2-1 home loss to Sevilla.

Wissem Ben Yedder turned the match on its head, breaking a scoreless deadlock two minutes after being introduced and completing his brace four minutes later in the 78th. Lukaku would pull one back for United, but the shock was too much to overcome as it would be a 10th straight year without lifting the Champions League trophy.

It also marked a week in which Mourinho went white-hot in attacking his team through the media, a spleen-venting that was unprecedented even by his already-high standards of using the press to get his message across. After the loss to Sevilla, he decried the lack of winning culture at United while City has risen to the ascendancy in Manchester over the past decade.

That, however, was just a broadside before the fusillade of criticism he unveiled after United’s 2-0 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion in the FA Cup quarterfinals. He said his team had a “lack of personality, a lack of class and a lack of desire” and was only happy with the result of the game as he called out nearly everyone save Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay.

Call it withering, call it scathing, call it anything you like, but the tirade was also one of Mourinho’s moments where he lays the groundwork for his vision going forward. The stinging rebuke was still echoing through his players’ ears three weeks later at the Etihad, where City had taken a 2-0 halftime lead and were 45 minutes away from setting a Premier League record for the earliest clinching of a title with the bonus of doing so at home against their most hated rivals.

Mourinho again reached into his bag of motivational rhetoric ploys at intermission, telling his team “you don’t want to be the clowns standing there, watching them get their title,” and this time they responded. Pogba had two scintillating goals four minutes apart before Chris Smalling latched onto a free kick by Sanchez to bag an unlikely winner. While the 3-2 United win merely delayed the inevitable of City’s third Premier League title in seven years, it was enough to calm the nerves for one weekend at least.

United reached the FA Cup final by beating Tottenham 2-1 at Wembley, then showed Wenger out the door with grace and another victory over their London foils with a 2-1 triumph as Marouane Fellaini grabbed a stoppage-time winner.

Despite losing just seven times in league play, the past season will also be remembered for the fact United somehow lost to all three promoted teams on the road, though it should also be noted Newcastle United is anything but a typical promoted side. Still, Mourinho’s side fell 1-0 at Brighton and Hove Albion, a famous victory for the Gulls that secured a second season in the top flight.

United wrapped up  league play with a draw at West Ham against former manager David Moyes and a 1-0 win over Watford. Their bid to end the season on a positive note with the FA Cup title fell by the wayside with a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea at Wembley as they could not overcome Eden Hazard’s penalty on 22 minutes.

POTENTIAL STARTING XI

Manchester United Lineup.png

Frankly, there is little confidence in this as a projected starting XI beyond De Gea between the sticks, Sanchez on the left and Lukaku eventually leading the line in a 4-3-3 set-up that fails to take into account a potential signing of Toby Alderweireld. Luke Shaw, who has been one of Mourinho’s favorite whipping boys, likely gets the initial run-out at left back while Ashley Young recovers from World Cup duty.

Victor Lindelof should be one of the players in central defense after a solid World Cup run to the quarterfinals with Sweden. Jones moves up into a defensive midfielder’s role until Matic recovers from surgery while flanked by Pogba and summer signing Fred.

Rashford will be given every chance to lock down the spot on the right opposite Sanchez, while Martial can provide depth at either position while preferring to play on the left. It is also likely there will be room for both of them early should Lukaku be unavailable for as Sanchez can lead the line if needed.

One player who needs to find his way onto the pitch is Jesse Lingard, who was another productive player for England at the World Cup and could provide a different look in attack. Juan Mata could serve in the playmaking role in limited bursts, and Fellaini — a Mourinho favorite — also is in the mix despite rumours he wanted to leave Old Trafford.

THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS

While a missing figure for much of last season due to injury, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was released in March to continue his goal-scoring exploits in the United States with the Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer. Among more immediate first-team players, Daley Blind departed for Ajax, and Matteo Darmian is reportedly trying to finalise a deal with Benfica.

While Anthony Martial wants to leave United, the current plight of missing players due to World Cup recovery means the French winger — who missed out playing for the World Cup-winning Les Bleus — likely will not get his wish. Mourinho has given his blessing for veteran defenders Marcus Rojo to move on from Old Trafford.

United have made three official signings entering the final days of the summer transfer window, the most notable one being Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk. The £52 million midfielder and Brazil international, though, suffered an injury in the run-up to the World Cup and missed out on the tournament for the Selecao.

The other confirmed signings were teenage defender Diogo Dalot from FC Porto and veteran goalkeeper Lee Grant from Stoke City. United are reportedly close to a deal for disgruntled Spurs central defender Alderweireld after being rebuffed for both Leicester City’s Harry Maguire and Barcelona’s Yerry Mina.

THE GUY WORTH SEEING

Paul Pogba (MF)

A lightning rod all season long for play that ranged from breathtakingly brilliant to boringly inspid with often no middle ground, Pogba returns to Old Trafford a World Cup winner, but it was the method that raised eyebrows, including Mourinho’s.

Pogba was used in tandem with N’Golo Kante in a reserved midfield role for France once manager Didier Deschamps realised the United star could not fully co-exist in an offence that featured Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe running in every direction underneath Olivier Giroud.

To his credit, Pogba played the role beautifully — highlighted by his stunning two-way play against Belgium in the semifinals — and he did net the match-winner in the final versus Croatia. What made the success so startling is that the role Deschamps defined for Pogba was the one Mourinho was unsuccessfully trying to slot Pogba into for United.

Mourinho even lamented Pogba’s international success while praising him, noting United’s success this season could hinge on “him understanding why he was so good, especially in the second part of the competition.”

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, United are the third-best choice to win the Premier League at 13/2 odds and for a top-four finish at 2/7. They are also joint-second with Liverpool for a top-six finish at 1/20. Manchester United is third at 7/1 odds to top the table on Christmas Day and receiving 9/2 odds for a top-two finish behind City for a second straight year.

Lukaku is joint-third with Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to win the Premier League’s Golden Boot at 6/1 odds, while Sanchez is further down the list at sixth with 16/1 odds. Pogba and Lukaku are the top United players in terms of Player of the Year odds, listed joint-eighth with Aubameyang and Spurs’ Christian Eriksen at 20/1.

FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES

Aug. 10 — Leicester City (10th) H
Aug. 19 — Brighton and Hove Albion (15th) A
Aug. 27 — Tottenham Hotspur (3rd) H
Sept. 1 — Burnley (7th) A
—————
April 20 — Everton (8th) A
April 27 — Chelsea (5th) H
May 4 — Huddersfield Town (16th) A
May 12 — Cardiff City (N/A) H

OUTLOOK

With a third season of Jose Mourinho on the touchline usually comes some sort of madness that results in club disaster and/or him leaving said touchline. The track record is plainly evident — third season unrest at Chelsea in 2007 after winning the Premier League title the season before. Third season exit at Real Madrid by mutual agreement in 2013. Third-season meltdown in his second go-round at Chelsea in 2016 in which he was out the door in December.

Now he enters his third season at United. He cut an angry, disappointed figure throughout the team’s tour of the United States this summer, largely because he missed out on seemingly all his major transfer targets, but also because the tour did little to sharpen the players he needs to have any chance of ending what could be a burgeoning dynasty on the other side of the city.

His critiques about his team, while harsh, had plenty of merit. It’s hard to feel anything but aggravation like he did after the 4-1 loss to Liverpool in which so few first-team roster players, let alone starting XI players, were on the pitch.

It is a team that does not lack for talent at every position, yet there has nothing about this preseason build-up that lends belief United will contend for a title. One of the underreported storylines of the early part of the season is how will keeper David De Gea recover from a sub-par World Cup in which he made exactly ONE save in Spain’s four matches while allowing six goals and failing to stop any penalties in the loss to Russia in the round of 16?

Matic’s absence in the early part of the season could loom very large. Mourinho’s demand for a central defender seemed to offer hints he wanted to go to a three-man back line, and he may be able to do that should Alderweireld come on board, but there is a certain irony in that his pragmatic ways may become necessary ways for United to navigate their opening stretch of schedule.

Still, when everyone does become available, it is a United team that has to improve. Pogba must retain his form from the World Cup. While Lukaku did not score after the knockout rounds for Belgium, he showed plenty of nous in creating opportunities for others, and his interplay with Sanchez will determine how far United really can go.

Mourinho may have to play Martial and Marcus Rashford together more often, something he was loathe to do last season. Also, the back-and-forth with Martial has to end quickly, and chairman Ed Woodward’s insistence on not selling the Frenchman could have lasting repercussions.

Unlike the United teams under predecessor Louis van Gaal, this is not a rudderless team. But it also feels like a side drifting without a direction while the teams around them — save Tottenham Hotspur — all began moving forward with a plan. After last season’s runner-up finish, one gets the sense Manchester United is going to have to graft hard to retain a Champions League spot in the top four, and if Mourinho gets mercurial, then all bets are off.

PREDICTED FINISH

6th place

PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS

July 18 — Fulham                                      July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City                               July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton                      July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton                           July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town                 August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion    August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford                                     August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United                    August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth                          August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace                          August 6 — Manchester City

2018 World Cup Match Recap 51 — Spain 1, Russia 1, (Russia wins 4-3 on penalties) (July 1)

It was death by a thousand passes.

For Spain.

Igor Akinfeev became the hero of the host nation with two saves during penalty kicks as Russia stunned the 2010 champion after playing to a 1-1 stalemate after 120 minutes in front of a frenzied partisan crowd at Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday.

After the teams combined to convert their first four attempts from the spot, Akinfeev piled the pressure on Spain when he dove to his right and stopped Koke. Aleksandar Golovin then put Russia in control of its destiny, beating David De Gea.

Sergio Ramos and Denis Cheryshev both converted, and with Iago Aspas needing to convert to force the Sbornaya into taking a fifth attempt, Akinfeev dove to his right but was able to get his left leg on the attempt down the middle, deflecting it wide and sending the crowd into rapture.

The hosts are into the quarterfinals for the first time since 1970 when they were known as the Soviet Union. Russia will face the winner of the Croatia-Denmark winner in Sochi on Saturday.

For Spain, the surprise elimination may mark the end of a golden generation that delivered on its promise with two European Championship titles that bookend its 2010 World Cup title. La Roja revolutionized the game a decade ago with its short-passing tiki-taka style incorporated from powerhouse club Barcelona, and it took opponents years to transition from fear of being caught out on a killer through ball to resolutely defending with two banks of players trying to hit Spain on the counter.

It was a tournament to forget for David De Gea, who may have taken the firing of coach and one-time keeper Julen Lopetegui two days before the start of the World Cup far harder than many realized. While he was not helped by a defense that got caught out at times and conceded two penalties in Spain’s four matches, De Gea made exactly one save in 390 minutes, and the Manchester United No. 1 failed to stop any spot kicks in this match when La Roja needed him most.

Spain had possession for nearly all of the 30 extra minutes, but a resolute Russia defense coupled with a lack of incisive play in the final third by Spain, which was also wary of being carved open on the counterattack, left much to be desired. La Roja completed over 1,000 passes while racking up 75 percent possession and a 25-7 edge in shots — not conceding a shot on target in open play while putting nine on frame.

Akinfeev, who finished with eight saves, also came up with a critical stop in the 109th minute, parrying a shot by Rodrigo from close range as he tried to go across goal from the right edge of the six-yard box. In the 85th minute, the CSKA Moscow No. 1 did well to deny Andres Iniesta at the left post and then got a hand on Aspas’ attempt on the rebound to send it wide of the right post.

The teams traded first-half goals, with a penalty by Artem Dzyuba canceling out an own goal by defender Sergey Ignashevich. The 38-year-old defender gifted Spain the lead in the 11th minute, with the ball deflecting off his right heel and past a stranded Akinfeev as he all but tackled Ramos as the Spain defender tried to position himself for a header in the six-yard box.

It was the 10th own goal of this tournament, furthering the record for the most in any World Cup.

Russia saw little of the ball in the first half-hour, but Golovin curled a shot wide of the bar in the 36th minute to start a brief spell of possession. On a corner shortly thereafter, Spain defender Gerard Pique had a moment of madness as the ball hit his raised arm in the penalty area, which made it easy for referee Bjorn Kuipers to point to the spot despite Pique’s protestations.

Dzyuba leveled the match with his well-taken penalty, sending De Gea the wrong way as it went into the right side of the net for his third goal of the tournament. After that, it became a test of wills, with Spain looking for the creases that a steely Russian defense refused to make.

In the 114th minute, Pique came up furious claiming he was held by Ignashevich on a free kick curled into the box, and Kuipers consulted the VAR crew near the stadium, but no penalty was given. Sergio Busquets nearly created Spain’s demise in the 116th minute when he was too casual with the ball on his end line, but a cutback cross into the penalty area went unanswered by the host.

The Sbornaya claimed a corner kick on the right in the 117th minute that wasn’t fully cleared, but Spain did the needed work on a second cross. By this point, Russia went into full-bunker mode to get to penalties as Spain continued to work the ball around with no direct purpose and no threatening shots.

Rodrigo tried a left-footed shot that Akinfeev smothered in the 121st minute right before Kuipers blew his whistle to advance the match would progress to spot kicks.

In the first 15-minute extra period, Spain had the first shot on target, but Marco Asensio’s tame 20-yard shot arrowed right at Akinfeev in the 100th minute. Four minutes later, Fernando Hierro introduced Rodrigo for Asensio as Spain’s fourth and final swap.

Right before the end of the first extra period, Isco earned a free kick on a poor challenge by Golovin, who was on a yellow card and could have been sent off. Pique’s flicked-on header of Koke’s free kick, though, was easily caught by Akinfeev.

In the 97th minute, Alexander Erkohin became the answer to the trivia question of who was the first fourth substitute in World Cup history as he entered for Daler Kuziev. FIFA added the fourth sub, only to be used after extra time, at this tournament.

Spain earned three corners in succession as the final 90 seconds of the first 90 minutes ticked away, but Ramos’ header on the final one popped over the crossbar.

In the third minute of stoppage time, a brutal giveaway allowed Fedor Kudriashov to enter into Spain’s final third. He laid the ball off for Fedor Smolov, but his shot went well wide of the right post.

The final half-hour of regulation was spent almost exclusively in Russia’s half of the pitch as Spain probed and poked the Sbornaya defense, trying to stretch it for gaps to run between. But wary of a counterattack, Spain did not always fill those gaps as David Villa was unable to find space as a striker underneath Diego Costa, who was rendered ineffective by Russia’s two banks of four being so tightly packed.

In the 81st minute, Dani Carvajal broke the monotony of Spain’s passing along the perimeter by trying a 30-yard shot that intended to be a cross to Aspas, but it went right at Akinfeev.

Both managers were cagey with their lineup selections as Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov opted for a fifth defender while leaving Cheryshev out of his starting XI, while Hierro restored Asensio to the midfield and did not introduce Iniesta until after the hour mark.

 

 

World Cup Round of 16 Preview — Spain vs. Russia (Match 51)

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.

GROUP RESULTS

Spain
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′)

Russia
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′)

FORMATIONS

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.

BETTING ANGLE

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.

PREDICTION

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.

UP NEXT

The winner of this match will play the winner of the Croatia-Denmark match in the quarterfinals July 7 in Sochi.

World Cup recap — Match 4: Spain 3, Portugal 3 (June 15)

In a pulsating match that lived up to the enormous expectations as the most anticipated contest of group play, Cristiano Ronaldo completed a hat trick with a sumptuous free kick from 25 yards into the upper right corner in the 88th minute as Portugal twice squandered one-goal leads before scraping out a 3-3 tie versus Iberian rival Spain in the Group B opener of the World Cup for these teams in Sochi.

Ronaldo, who became the fourth player in World Cup history to score in four different tournaments earlier in the contest, drew a foul on Gerard Pique just above the semicircle and slightly off-center to the right. The Real Madrid star calmly curled a right-footed shot around a four-man Spanish wall and inside the right post as keeper David De Gea helplessly watched it ripple the net.

Sensing the chance to steal all three points after the equalizer, Portugal pushed forward for a winner, with Koke making a desperate sliding tackle in stoppage time to block a shot by Ricardo Quaresma, who had cut in from the left into the penalty area and avoided two defenders before trying to shoot.

Diego Costa scored Spain’s first two goals before Nacho had given the 2010 World Cup champion a 3-2 lead on 57 minutes with a spectacular searing volley from distance. La Roja twice overcame one-goal deficits, but their possession-based and short-passing style was not enough to see out the contest, and a howler by De Gea on Ronaldo’s second goal right before halftime will also be pointed out as a reason they claimed only one point.

The result leaves Iran as the unexpected leader of Group B through the first set of matches by virtue of its late 1-0 triumph over Morocco, while Spain and Portugal are tied for second. The result capped a tumultuous first week in Russia for Spain, which fired coach Julen Lopetegui on Wednesday one day after he accepted the Real Madrid coaching position without informing anyone in the Spanish federation he was negotiating with the reigning three-time Champions League winner.

Lopetegui’s replacement, Fernando Hierro, cut a composed figure in the coaches’ box, offering support to his players as the style of play remained identical to the one that powered La Roja’s rise as one of the best teams of all-times with European Championship titles bracketing their World Cup triumph in South Africa.

Facing an opponent comprised of many of his Real Madrid teammates, Ronaldo and Portugal started the game on the front foot, and he drew a penalty on Nacho, who clipped him in the left side of the penalty area after the Portuguese superstar performed a stepover. Ronaldo made no mistake from 12 yards, slamming the ball into the right side of the net for his 81st international goal as he joined Pele, Uwe Seeler and Mirsolav Klose as the only players to score in four different World Cup tournaments.

Spain found its bearings and pulled level in the 24th minute as Costa scored one of his trademark goals. He initiated contact with Portuguese defender Pepe, knocking him to the pitch, while chasing a long ball sent by Sergio Busquets, gained control of it and then outfoxed Jose Fonte before ripping a right-footed shot between Fonte and a second defender from the top of the penalty area between them and inside the left post past a diving Rui Patricio.

La Roja nearly grabbed the lead minutes later as Isco uncorked a rasping right-footed shot that thumped the underside of the crossbar and landed on the goal line before being cleared from danger. Referee Gianlucha Rossi, who did consult the VAR crew on both Ronaldo’s penalty and Costa’s first goal, did not need a second opinion since his watch never buzzed.

By this point, Spain was in full pressing mode and stringing passes together in rapid-fire fashion. One such sequence ended with a shot by Andres Iniesta rolling inches wide of the right post. Yet it was Portugal which went into halftime with a 2-1 lead as Ronaldo collected a pass from Goncalo Guedes and took a step to his left before taking a low 20-yard shot straight on that De Gea did not get down fast enough to stop as it caromed off his body and rolled into the net.

Costa, though, struck again to draw Spain level in the 55th minute. In a beautiful set piece, David Silva sent a free kick long to the right, where Sergio Busquets headed it back to the middle, where Costa slammed it home from close range. Then it was Nacho’s turn to do what Isco could not, unleash a thunderbolt that resulted in a goal.

A poor clearance by Portgual’s William Carvalho went out to the left, where Nacho was able to size it up before lashing a right-footed shot that sliced off the inside of the left post.

 

 

 

Costa had a chance to provide a crucial insurance goal in the 71st minute, but he was unable to sweep a cross fashioned by Jordi Alba’s cutback. Spain had dominated possession for a long spell after Nacho’s goal, but also had pulled back after Hierro subbed out Andres Iniesta on 70 minutes.

Ronaldo became the third Portuguese player to record a hat trick in the World Cup, joining Eusebio (1966) and Pauleta (2002). It was the 51st hat trick in World Cup history, with Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri most recently accomplishing the feat versus Honduras in 2014.