Russia captain Igor Akinfeev was the hero as the hosts stunned Spain 4-3 on penalties after they played out a 1-1 draw at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.
Akinfeev had already made good saves as Russia held on to force extra-time and spot-kicks – but he then saved from Koke and Iago Aspas in the shoot-out.
Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov dropped Spanish-based winger Denis Cheryshev and went with five at the back. The limitations of this became obvious when Aleksandr Golovin scampered down the wing in the fourth minute but had nobody to cross to – he held on and settled for a corner.
Spain, meanwhile, passed and passed and passed. And then in the 11th minute, right-back Nacho was fouled just outside the Russian box, giving Marco Asensio no excuse whatsoever but to deliver a ball into the box.
The Real Madrid star did so and it was a fine delivery, but not as good as Sergey Ignashevich made it look. A fortnight short of his 39th birthday, the CSKA stopper is old enough to know you need to watch the ball. Sadly, he had eyes only for Sergio Ramos, who he successfully wrestled to the floor only for the ball to cannon off his heel for a comical own goal.
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From being written off by their press to causing World Cup giants distress, Russia have penned another tale in a tournament that just keeps giving.
Ilya Kutepov and Sergei Ignashevich – discounting his spear tackle on Sergio Ramos for the own goal – were the warriors at the back but Igor Akinfeev was the general.
On the occasion of his 110th cap, Akinfeev stood firm for 120 minutes and then kept out Koke and finally Iago Aspas in the penalty shootout to send Moscow into ecstasy.
Spain completed more than 1,000 passes yet it led to just nine shots on target in full-time and extra-time combined.
Akinfeev may not have been called upon to make save after save, but smart stops from Andres Iniesta and Rodrigo in particular as tired Russian legs became a factor.
He then outshone David De Gea, supposedly one of the best goalkeepers in the world, in the penalty shootout. Akinfeev let in a howler against South Korea back in Brazil – he’s gone from zero to hero in four years.
Keeping cool – It would be wrong to describe Akinfeev as unflappable as he has certainly been prone to a few flaps in his career. At the Luzhniki Stadium though he maintained his concentration, only came out when he was required and there could be no quibbles about his handling.
Intelligent saves – Iniesta’s half-volley was the only effort that coaxed out true brilliance from Akinfeev in open play, a sprawling save to his right that he pushed far clear from danger. Indeed, there was never any threat of a frustrated Spain gobbling up a rebound.
His penalty save from Koke, given that he went the right way, was simple enough but his second, and winning, stop was Jerzy Dudek-esque for Liverpool in the 2005 Champions League final.
The CSKA Moscow stopper left his left leg hanging high to boot the ball far, far away from his goal and Spain out of the World Cup.
Given that Russia showed little to none attacking intent in the face of Spain’s passing by a thousand cuts approach, the hosts needed Akinfeev to prove a supreme leader.
Though he can’t take all the credit as the Russians formed a white wall that was only breached on occasion, the 32-year-old radiated calmness and was the coolest man on the pitch at the very end.
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Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev said his side’s penalties win over Spain in the World Cup round of 16 was the result of a deliberate strategy to play for a shootout.
The tournament hosts had to withstand wave after wave of Spanish pressure after they had fought back to level the scores 1-1 at halftime.
Russia gifted Spain the opening goal through an own goal, but the 2010 champions returned the favour as Gerard Pique’s handball gave the hosts a penalty which Artem Dzyuba converted just before the first half ended.
But Spain were unable to break through in the second half or extra time, as Russia gamely held on for penalties, where they would emerge triumphant.
“We were hoping for penalties, “Akinfeev said.
“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.”
The veteran goalkeeper saved two penalties in the shootout, including from Iago Aspas to clinch a dramatic win.
A delighted Russia manager Stanislav Cherch added: “we spent two years working on this and did a good job”.