Spain continue their World Cup campaign with Sunday’s last sixteen tie against hosts Russia, who may fancy their chances of causing a major upset against a team which stumbled badly throughout the group phase.
Only a disputed last-minute goal from Iago Aspas prevented Spain from slipping to a defeat against Morocco and second place in the group, and inexperienced interim boss Fernando Hierro’s ability to lead his players deep into the tournament is being seriously questioned.
Here are three big storylines ahead of the game.
CAN SPAIN FIND CONSISTENCY?
Spain are heading into the game with mixed emotions, having produced some excellent flowing football at times and won their group but also struggled for consistency and looked very vulnerable at the back.
No other team still in the competition has conceded more goals than the five allowed by La Roja in the group games, and the worrying form of keeper David de Gea continues to present a major concern at one end, while the late hero against Morocco, Aspas, is pushing hard to replace or supplement Diego Costa at the other.
There is absolutely no doubting Spain’s quality, and they should be easily capable of comfortably overcoming a rather ordinary Russian outfit. And out of all teams we have seen so far in Russia, they are probably the side with the most obvious scope for improvement if they can remain focussed and cut out their sloppy errors.
But it’s impossible to escape the feeling that things aren’t quite right within the Spanish ranks, and another badly conceded goal or two could bring a shock early end to their campaign.
KOKE BACK IN FAVOUR?
The biggest loser in the shock pre-tournament departure of Spain boss Julen Lopetegui has been Atletico Madrid man Koke, who started six of his team’s 10 qualifiers, gaining the second-highest number of minutes of all midfielder behind Sergio Busquets, but has only been selected once so far by interim boss Fernando Hierro – he played in the opener against Portugal but was left out against Iran and Morocco.
Koke is probably the least technically gifted of Spain’s midfield options, so it’s understandable why Hierro chose the speedy penetration of Real Madrid winger Lucas Vazquez and the incisive passing of Bayern Munich’s Thiago Alcantara against a pair of opponents who were always going to sit deep and pack the penalty box.
But Koke boasts outstanding tactical understanding and is an excellent presser of the ball – a benefit that comes naturally after playing for six years under the management of Diego Simeone. There’s a strong argument that those exactly qualities mean he could be the best option to restore the balance that has been missing for the majority of the tournament so far, but if he is left out again it would be a strong indication he is not fully trusted by Hierro.
DO RUSSIA BELIEVE?
Russia’s chief challenge on this historic occasion could well be psychological.
After making an unexpectedly fabulous start to the campaign by thrashing Saudi Arabia 5-0 and then comfortably downing Egypt 3-1, the hosts were brought crashing back down to earth with a comprehensive 3-0 defeat in their final group game against Uruguay – allowing the rest of the world to conclude they had been found out as soon as they came up against decent opposition.
Now Russia have bounce back from that disappointment and prove – to themselves as much as anyone else – that they belong in the latter stages of the World Cup. Getting through the group stage is one thing, but that was probably the absolute limit of Russia’s expectations and mustering the self-belief to topple a heavyweight like Spain will be a major mental hurdle.
Of course, home crowd advantage could play a factor, and the fans at the Luzhniki Stadium have their part to play in creating a fierce atmosphere to inspire the underdogs to a major scalp.