Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov claimed he had to “persuade” his players to switch to the five-man defence that frustrated Spain and helped the hosts reach the last eight of the World Cup.
Spain dominated possession but rarely found a way through the home side’s rugged rearguard and when they did they ran into an inspired Igor Akinfeev.
Saving two penalties in the shoot-out guaranteed that goalkeeper Akinfeev would be named man of the match but he had already thwarted Spain with several fine saves in regular and extra time.
In fact, Spain needed a bizarre own goal by the otherwise excellent Sergei Ignashevich to open the scoring, while Russia’s equaliser was another penalty, this time a 41st-minute effort by Artem Dzyuba.
But the real story was how Spain failed to win despite having the ball for three quarters of the 120 minutes, making four times as many passes as Russia and creating four times as many chances.
“I don’t believe I am the man of the match – that was the whole team and the fans,” said captain Akinfeev afterwards.
“It was a beautiful game. We didn’t play quite the way we wanted but it’s hard when you don’t have the ball and you spend that much time defending.”
Previous defeats by Spain, and the fact his side had played with 10 for much of their last game against Uruguay, convinced boss Cherchesov to pick a 5-3-1-1 formation in the hope that discretion really is the better part of valour.
“I had to persuade them this was the only way as they don’t like this system,” said Cherchesov, whose side had one shot on target in two hours of football.
“But it’s what we had to do and thankfully they trusted me. We might have attacked more if we only played four at the back or with more forwards but I believe we were victorious because my players stuck to the plan.”
Asked why he did not appear to be as happy as his players, the 54-year-old said: “My emotions are simple – you show them when you direct your team but when it’s over I’m already thinking about the next game.”
The emotions of his opposite number Fernando Hierro did not need much explanation either but the former Real Madrid defender answered every question with dignity.
“How do you think we are feeling? We feel like all Spaniards this evening,” he said.
“We came here with lots of ambition so we empathise with the fans here and at home. But I don’t think you can talk about any collapse.
“There’s a fine line between winning and losing and we went out on penalties after 120 minutes. I can look all of my players in the eye and say it’s been a pleasure and a privilege to live and work with them.”
Lamenting his side’s failure to make more of their chances, he said it was a great shame two years of hard work and good results had come to an end “in a shoot-out which is basically a lottery and we weren’t lucky”.
Most of that work, of course, was his predecessor Julen Lopetegui’s but he was sacked a day before the World Cup began when he revealed that he would be taking over at Real Madrid next season.
Hierro refused to make excuses or “point fingers”, saying only that he took the responsibility on and was proud to have done so.
He also said he had no regrets about dropping Andres Iniesta for this game but praised him as “an outstanding professional and one of our greatest players” for the way he accepted the decision and played as a second-half substitute.
Iniesta later confirmed his retirement from international football.
This Russian team, on the other hand, still have history to make and with big names falling by the wayside on an almost daily basis, they must now be considered serious contenders for a return to the Luzhniki Stadium in the semi-final and perhaps even the final.
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