Moscow (AFP) – Host nation Russia stunned 2010 winners Spain in a penalty shootout to reach the World Cup quarter-finals on Sunday, holding their nerve in scenes of high drama in Moscow.
Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev was the hero, saving spot-kicks from Koke and Iago Aspas as Russia won 4-3, sparking emotional scenes as the rain poured down at the Luzhniki stadium.
Fernando Hierro’s Spain totally dominated the match, hogging 74 percent of possession, but created few clear-cut chances and head home after a disjointed campaign that never took off.
Russia are the lowest-ranked nation in the tournament — a lowly 70th in the world — and were not expected to progress beyond the first round but they now find themselves in the last eight, where they will play either Croatia or Denmark.
“We were hoping for penalties,” Akinfeev said after the match ended 1-1 following extra time.
“We are having a fantastic World Cup. Not just our fans, but the fans of other countries are getting a sense of this atmosphere and understood that Russians really know how to play football and want to play football.”
Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov said: “We spent two years working on this and we did a good job.”
Russia came into the tournament derided by their own supporters after a string of defeats in warm-up matches but they thrashed Saudi Arabia 5-0 in their opener and then swept aside Egypt 3-1, making even their own sceptical public believe.
The result is a disaster for Spain, whose preparations for the tournament were wrecked when their manager Julen Lopetegui was sacked on the eve of the tournament.
They shipped five goals in their three group matches and there were major questions over the form of goalkeeper David de Gea coming into the knockout phase.
– Midfield battle –
Denmark were set to play Croatia in the later match in Nizhny Novgorod.
Denmark coach Age Hareide said the match could boil down to the midfield duel between Tottenham powerhouse Christian Eriksen and Croatia talisman Luka Modric.
The Danes failed to set pulses racing in the opening round but advanced second behind France in Group C.
By contrast, Croatia stormed through Group D, winning all three games and put in arguably the best performance of the first stage, a 3-0 thumping of Argentina, in the same Nizhny Novgorod stadium where they play Sunday.
Hareide promised his team would show far more thrust this time.
“I think you will see a different Denmark from what you have seen so far and the type of game we have played,” Hareide said. “Yes, we need to defend but we need to attack more.”
– Messi, Ronaldo gone –
Sunday’s shock result follows the exits of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi the previous day and means three potential contenders — Portugal, Argentina and Spain — have been dumped out in just 24 hours.
The departure of Ronaldo and Messi deprives the World Cup of its two biggest stars as they left the competition for possibly the last time.
Ronaldo will be 37 by the time the next World Cup is played in Qatar, but he would not be drawn on whether he planned to extend his international career after Portugal lost 2-1 to Uruguay as Edinson Cavani scored two brilliant goals.
“Now is not the time to talk about the future of players and coaches,” said Ronaldo, who, like Messi, leaves the World Cup having never scored a goal in the knockout rounds.
The dramatic last-16 openers on Saturday, which featured 10 goals, marked a handing on of the torch to a new generation, with French teenager Kylian Mbappe announcing himself on the world stage.
France beat Messi’s Argentina 4-3 in a World Cup classic as Mbappe scored twice to send the two-time winners packing.
Mbappe, 19, became the first teenager to score twice in a World Cup match since a 17-year-old Pele in the 1958 final. The Brazilian legend tweeted to the Frenchman: “Congratulations, @KMbappe, 2 goals in a World Cup so young puts you in great company.”
Messi though was unable to find the net and left Russia with a single goal. At 31 the Barcelona great has probably seen any chance of winning the World Cup evaporate.
Meanwhile Colombia said forward James Rodriguez has “minor bruising” in a calf muscle but no decision has been taken on whether he will play against England on Tuesday.
An MRI scan showed he has “minor bruising without any tear in the muscle fibres”, the Colombian football federation said.
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