In today’s opening match, of Russian’s World Cup 2018 knockout stage, Spain played Russia and the former were a shell of themselves while the latter simply played all-out defense but with the rare counter. The game ended 1—1 and it was deserved given the relative efforts expended and the lack of quality achieved. In Extra Time, neither team did anything differently and the few opportunities that ensued were easily squashed by the respective goalkeepers or defenders. So we went to penalties.
Igor Akinfeev, the Russian goalkeeper who had allowed four previous goals, became the game’s hero. He saved the poorly taken kick from Koke. Then, in a save that will live in World Cup lore, Iago Aspas sent Akinfeev the wrong way, to his right, and then kicked high and down the middle. Only the keeper stretched his leg out and saved the shot, deflecting it high and wide right. The Russians all scored their penalties and the Spaniards missed two. Russia deserved the win.
Among the ironies of the match were the fact that Sergio Ramos was wrestled to the turf by Sergei Ignashevich on Marco Asensio’s cross that led to Spain’s only score. But the penalty went uncalled. What did happen is that while the Russian lay on top of Ramos, his leg’s lifted heel was struck by the ball and ricocheted into the net.
The Russian goal came about because Gerard Pique’s penchant for hand balls in the box finally met a ref who would not buy it was accidental. Pique must have forgotten that referee Björn Kuipers had officiated enough UEFA Champions League games to have seen the Barcelona defender ply his particular trade. Pique’s raised hand on an alleged header attempt was kept up specifically to block the ball’s flight and was rightly called a penalty. The ensuing score kept the Russians in the game.
It was sad to see that Hierro did not know his charges well enough to understand, for example, that Asensio has a great long-range shot, as he was never set up by his teammates to take a single shot. Similarly, the interim coach took 67 minutes (when Andres Iniesta finally came onto the pitch) to figure out that the only success his team was having was when Isco took defenders on one-on-one and forced the Russians to scramble a back-up to cover him.
Throughout the match the Spanish team, who had 79% of possession and 24 shots at goal (9 on target) to Russia’s 7 (1 on target), simply did not know what to do to score. What we witnessed was the fact that the Spanish Royal Football Federation (RFEF) never learned the lessons of Vicente del Bosque’s debacle at the 2014 World Cup. Interim coach, Fernando Hierro, simply did not know that tiki-taka and Diego Costa do not mix as the striker is neither subtle on the ball or mobile enough to take advantage of Spain’s great midfielders’ passes.
The Russians had an easy time keeping Costa under wraps and by the time mobile strikers Rodrigo and Iago Aspas came into the match it was way too late. The Spaniards hubris in the manner they played, in the avoidable and self-inflicted wound of the coach-switch debacle, and in their insistence on ridding out both mistakes to their, by then, unavoidable conclusion, earned them this early exit.