The lowest-ranked team in the World Cup has defeated Spain. Russia is in the quarter-finals of their home competition.
Surely that is a paragraph no-one could have predicted; but then again, who can predict anything in a World Cup like this? Maybe it was their accurate penalties. Maybe it was their hard running. Maybe it was the performance of goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. Maybe it was the personal call from President Vladimir Putin to coach Stanislav Cherchesov before the match. Whatever it was, Russia defeated Spain.
Strangely enough, Spain had been here before, at the receiving end of lesser-ranked hosts. In 2002, Spain bundled out on penalties to co-hosts South Korea in an affair that was marred by allegations of corruption after Korea had whizzed past Italy as well.
Russia will be hoping however to replicate South Korea’s golden run which took them all the way to the semis. This is the first Russian team in modern history to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup. Russia had previously played three times at the competition but never made it out of the group stages. The team now looks to Saturday for their next match and next opponent: Croatia.
AMAZING: The reaction in Moscow's fan park when Russia beat Spain on penalties. pic.twitter.com/ECcWfaecoe
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) July 1, 2018
Russia is preparing to come up against an opponent who narrowly avoided elimination themselves after Denmark pushed Croatia all the way to penalties in their Round of 16 match. Sunday’s game went down to the wire, with 20th-ranked Croatia coming out the other side thanks to three vital saves in the shootout from goalkeeper Danijel Subasic.
The quarter-final appearance marks Croatia’s first since 1998 and on paper the team are favourites to end Russia’s unlikely winning streak: current probability predictors have Croatia at 41 per cent for the win and 31 per cent to draw.
But–and it is a big but–Russia does have the chance to progress into the semi-finals – they have made it this far after all. The home team will need all cylinders firing however if that is going to happen, and these cylinders include:
1) It’s all about Igor: The Russian goalkeeper and team captain Igor Akinfeev. The Spanish nailed 9 shots on target against the Russians and Akinfeev performed well to keep the scorecard to a solitary goal. If Russia is any chance they need Igor to play well.
2) The Cheryshev attack: At the other end of the spectrum is goal supply, and the home squad will be hoping Denis Cheryshev can continue his fine form. The player has nailed three goals in the competition so far and is always a threat in the attacking half. As the only outfield member of the Russia squad to play overseas, Cheryshev also provides valuable international playing experience. Any chance of winning will be seriously bolstered by a solid Cheryshev performance.
3) Home ground advantage: Russian football supporters are a passionate bunch and their presence will no doubt have a mental impact on the game. Factor in the Sochi heat and humidity and the Croatian side will certainly have external elements working against them. Whether that can be enough to for the Russians to win remains to be seen.
This match contains a lot of unknowns, but one thing’s for certain: we’ll find out together this Saturday when Croatia take on Russia in Fisht Stadium, Sochi, Russia.