A bonus game this may be for Russia but Spain are not a team to be feared based on the evidence so far.
In one sense, an appearance in the knockout rounds is mission accomplished for the World Cup hosts. In another, there should be no limits in a tournament that has already produced a series of shocks.
Check out the players in the spotlight ahead of Sunday’s round-of-16 encounter:
DIEGO COSTA v ARTEM DZYUBA
The good, the bad and the ugly – it’s what we’ve come to expect from Diego Costa at the World Cup.
Fernando Hierro has appeared to dismiss suggestions that the Atletico Madrid hitman will be dropped, despite Iago Aspas’ late equaliser against Morocco that sent Spain into the game with Russia – an ostensibly easier one than Uruguay.
Costa was dispossessed six times by the Atlas Lions as his right peg may as well have been covered in cement instead of the usual superglue applied by Spain’s tricky forwards.
And that’s always been the worry with Diego. As La Roja generally continue to eschew the air for the ground, Costa’s impact is minimised. The way he (perhaps illegally) manhandled Pepe for his opening goal of the tournament is reason enough for Hierro to mix up their approach.
Russia centre-backs Ilya Kutepov and Sergei Ignashevich relish a physical battle but Costa has unsettled better defenders in the past – so give him that chance.
Dzyuba has always enjoyed playing the maverick and until recently that has not gone done well in some quarters.
Unai Emery and Fabio Capello are just two previous managers who have found his devil-may-care attitude infuriating, while current Russia boss Stanislav Cherchesov has also had his run-ins with the 29-year-old.
He needs no motivation at his home World Cup, though. Having usurped the disappointing Fyodor Smolov as Russia’s lone striker, he has scored against both Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Dzyuba, who looms large at 6ft 5in, is bound to cause Spain some trouble in the air and he’ll have watched how Morocco striker Youssef El Nesyri overpowered Sergio Ramos to rise highest and score with glee.
From an outcast at Zenit Saint Petersburg to the zenith – the self-styled Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Russia is finally making good on his words.
ISCO v ALEKSANDR GOLOVIN
Very few Spain players have covered themselves in glory in perhaps the first World Cup that started with a sacking rather than ending in one.
If the sacked Julen Lopetegui was a big supporter then Fernando Hierro is also a fully paid-up member of the Isco fan club. In an interview last October, Hierro spoke of the first time he laid eyes on the then 15-year-old playing for Valencia’s youth team. “After just 10 minutes of seeing him play, I left the pitch. I had already seen everything [he could do],” recollected the former Spain defender.
Hierro has given Isco his complete trust. He nominally starts on the left but drifts centrally, occasionally deep, and has played a number of defence-splitting passes where Spain’s other tiki-taka advocates have failed. It’s easy to imagine the Russia backline falling under his spell.
Aleksandr Golovin had the benefit of receiving a full rest after being left out of the dead-rubber clash with Uruguay – and a 3-0 defeat was hardly the triumphant sending-off into the knockouts for the hosts.
Russia have already surpassed expectations, yet the feel-good factor took a scratch without Golovin as the midfield was smothered by Uruguay’s terriers.
It’s for the best that the 22-year-old will be in tip-top shape for this one. Yuri Gazinskiy and Roman Zobnin are adequate passers of the ball as the midfield two behind him, but are more proficient at doing the dirty work.
That leaves Golovin as Russia’s sole creative spark and he will have Sergio Busquets and likely Koke – a more physical option alongside the Barcelona man – hounding him whenever he gets the ball in Spain’s third.
If the CSKA Moscow playmaker desires a move to one of the big boys in Europe, he has no better stage for showing his true worth.
GERARD PIQUE v SERGEI IGNASHEVICH
Many would argue that Gerard Pique should not be taking to the Luzhniki Stadium turf on Sunday after he used his body like a two-footed bazooka in a horror tackle on Morocco’s Khalid Boutaib.
Neither Pique nor Sergio Ramos have looked the part for a Spain side that have conceded five goals through three games so far – and their only clean sheet was against an Iran, who even then supplied a few heart-in-mouth moments.
Pique at times has looked overawed physically and given that is one of Russia’s calling cards, there is reason to believe the Barcelona defender will be in for a rough ride. Add the fact that David De Gea has not looked comfortable in between the sticks and Russia rightly enter the game with hope.
The robustness of Ignashevich has also given the hosts reason to cheer after shelving his international retirement for his country’s time of need. Ignashevich, who turns 39 in two weeks, was only drafted in due to an injury crisis but his aging legs have stood firm – for the most part.
He made an error in the defeat to Uruguay after dragging Edinson Cavani behind the wall, only for that to open up space for Luis Suarez to ping the free-kick the opposite side.
The Uruguay forwards both have tricky feet, but Spain’s twinkle toes are unrivalled. Never the most agile defender to begin with, if he pulls off a feat here then it’ll be time to ask for his directions to the fountain of youth.
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