Demola Ojo in St Petersburg
World Cup fever is well and truly on and the hosts will be hoping the feel-good factor continues as the Russian football team battle the odds today when they face their biggest challenge to date in one of the pre-tournament favourites, Spain.
Russia got off to a blistering start with wins over Saudi Arabia and Egypt giving them a cumulative score of eight goals for and one against. Hoiwever, they were handed a healthy dos of reality when they were pummeled 3-0 by Uruguay.
Looking at the bright side, coming second to Uruguay means they get to play former world and European champions Spain at the Luzhniki Stadium, where they surely, have great memories of that five-goal haul against Saudi Arabia in the competetions opening match.
The host nation will reckon that if there was ever a good time to play Spain, it would be now. Despite boasting some of the best players in their respective positions at this competetion, Spain have managed only one win, a single goal victory against Iran. They have been pegged back to draws by both Portugal and Morocco, the latter at the risk of elimination.
Dismissed as no-hopers little over a fortnight ago, Russia will try to get back onboard a wave of national euphoria and pull off what striker Artem Dzyuba called a “minor miracle”.
While Russia arrived at the finals winless in eight months before finding some badly-needed form, one of their better results in that period came in a 3-3 draw with Spain last November.
For Sergei Ignashevich, one of three holdovers from the Russia side that lost to Spain in the semi-finals of Euro 2008, there are no secrets about their upcoming opponents.
“Spain plays the same style as in previous years,” said the 38-year-old defender. “Spanish defenders play very high leaving spaces that a counter-attacking team can use. This is probably their only weak spot if they have any.”
He continued, “The fact that the game will be at Luzhniki Stadium with almost 80,000 people supporting us is probably the only good consequence from the fact we finished second in our group,” said Ignashevich.
The hosts are at full strength and with the support of fans at the Luzhniki, will hope to upset their opponents by attempting to build on the performances of Portugal and Morocco – who managed to score and remain undefeated against La Roja.
For this particular test, the defensive problems within Fernando Hierro’s side will be met by the issue of facing one of the highest goalscorers at the tournament so far. The entire squad is available and the coach could make changes in all positions as – up to this point – what has been tried has not gone as expected.