As the Russian players looked to the crowd and the heavens, joyous in the unlikeliest of victories to reach the quarter-finals in a raucous Luzhniki Stadium, Spain can only look to themselves. The 2010 champions are the latest favourites to crash out of a tournament that now seems even more open, but were really beaten by their own complacency and mistakes rather than a poor host side who seemed to be running on empty.
How fitting that the World Cup that Russia are hosting, one so dominated by spot-kicks, sees their really special moment come though that means. It just means that there is a real chance one of the finalists won’t come anywhere close to fitting the tag of pre-tournament favourites. That should be even more galling for Spain, but especially exciting for sides like Croatia and England. Fernando Hierro’s side were so poor, however, that it’s hard to see how they could have gone much further.
Errors have characterised Spain’s short campaign from the start of it, and now to the finish, although the really searching question is where they truly began. Koke and Iago Aspas missed the decisive penalties in the 4-3 shootout defeat but only after Gerard Pique had inexplicably given away a first-half spot-kick when Spain were in full control to make it 1-1 – and of course after the departure of manager Julen Lopetegui before this World Cup even began.
There will now be much more focus on that, but the focus here should go on yet another sloppy and error-ridden display that eventually saw them punished. It might seem churlish here to not praise Russia but the reality was that, other than the brief period up until Artem Dzyuba’s own penalty, they didn’t have to do much. There were times when they couldn’t do much. They just stood up, and that was enough.
Spain, almost returning to their pre-2008 history – not least with how the continued a trend of never beating a host nation – shot themselves in the foot, or at least you could say that if they had something like a shot. It was so pointed their only goal came from a Russian foot because this was death by a 1,000 passes – literally. Spain actually exceeded that number in the game, but to no effect. There was no slickness to them, or effect, just sloppiness. The story of their deservedly short World Cup.
It was an error that naturally opened the action, albeit in one of the few periods of the first half when Spain actually looked focused rather than sloppy. That said enough. After Nacho had been fouled on the right, Marco Asensio curled in a set-piece for the head of Sergio Ramos. The centre-half was already on his way to the ground after a grappling match with Sergei Ignashevich, but it said enough about him that he still found a way to win that by still finding a way to force a goal. With Ignashevich so focused on Ramos, he wasn’t focused on the ball, and it bounced past Igor Akinfeev and in.
Such was Spain’s superiority when they were actually on it that, even after 12 minutes, that should really have been enough.
They instead just continued with the mistakes that have benighted their World Cup. This time it was a collective mistake, as Spain began to passively play as if it was the 80th minute and they were 3-0 up. That was never better summed up than by the playmaker supposed to be their most punishing attacker. Except, when Isco had the ball just as an attack was building, he instead turned back and played the ball towards his own defence.
A feeling of such passive superiority might have been justified by how technically inferior the Russians had proven themselves before that, but the problem was that the fact it was still only 1-0 was gradually emboldening them.
Spain had warning when Aleksandr Golovin curled wide, and then had another catastrophe has Pique inexplicably put his hand up in an aerial challenge, and of course handled the ball. Referee Bjorn Kuipers had no option but to give a penalty, and Dzyuba made no mistake here. It was out of character with the game.
What should have been most galling for Spain was how it was some of their most prominent players making the most errors. Pique’s frankly stupid handball here only followed on from his central defensive partner Ramos’ catalogue of mistakes in the group stage, and meant it was second penalty that Spain had conceded from to go with opposition goals that came from two individual errors in play.
There was then the ineffectiveness of someone as usually imperious as David Silva. He was just sloppy, and lightweight, as Iniesta rested his own weight on the bench. That maybe illustrated Hierro’s own mistake: dropping the playmaker.
Russia had themselves dropped Denis Cherysev, following the controversy surrounding his father’s comments about the use of growth hormones – something denied when the player himself appeared at the pre-match press conference. Cherysev still appeared before Iniesta, but Spain – and Silva – had been so bad it was only a matter of time.
It’s just that Spain’s movement was still so bad. Although they’re a side whose speciality is supposed to be playmakers whose deftness in the area in front of the 18-yard box just bewitches opposition and decides games, there was none of that. There was nothing, other than sterility.
Iniesta and Isco finding themselves trying to take control of the same ball by the corner of the box was illustrative, as was Hierro finally resorting to bringing on some actual pace in Isco.
Russia, of course, did deserve credit for the durability of their defending. Their eight-man backline wasn’t moving either. This what the game became, and the mistake of Spain’s approach after actually opening the scoring allowed.
Russia were sitting back, but Spain were apparently unable to step up, in any way. They appeared completely out of ideas, only able to come up with the occasional speculative long pass or hopeful individual dribble amid scores and scores of passive passing.
What made it even worse for Spain was that Russia were so jaded by this point that most of their players could barely control the ball. Spain could barely go without making a mistake, as the shootout proved.
They fell in on themselves again, as Russia stood proud.
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