Russia play Spain in the World Cup last 16 at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Sunday, in what is the biggest game for Russian football in a generation.
Russia are appearing in the World Cup knockout stages for the first time as an independent nation, and reached the last 16 after finishing second in their group.
Stanislav’s Cherchesov’s team recorded two wins from their three group games, demolishing Saudi Arabia 5-0 in their opening match before seeing off Egypt 3-1. They faced a reality check in a 3-0 defeat to group-toppers Uruguay, although Cherchesov fielded a changed team with qualification secured.
Spain, however, have not been at their brilliant best so far in Russia, despite topping their group ahead of Portugal.
The Iberian giants drew 3-3 in their opening game, before Spain went on to record a narrow win against Iran and a 2-2 draw against Morocco thanks to a late Iago Aspas equalizer.
Spain, in short, have looked fallible – here is how Russia can exploit that in today’s game.
1. TARGET DE GEA
Spain goalkeeper David de Gea is one of the best in the world, and enjoyed another standout season at club team Manchester United. He has inherited the Number 1 shirt in the national team vacated by the legendary Iker Casillas, with many expecting him to be his country’s rock at the back for the next decade.
However, he has endured a difficult tournament in Russia so far, fumbling Cristiano Ronaldo’s shot into his own net for Portugal’s second in the opening game, and appearing uncertain in the following games against Iran and Morocco.
His confidence has been shaken, despite public backing from his teammates. Russia should put a man on De Gea at corners and set-pieces, and test him from range as much they can to apply the pressure.
2. PACK THE MIDFIELD
Pass-masters Spain will inevitably dominate possession against Russia. The Spaniards completed more passes (around 2,100) than any other team in the group stage, and had a 91 percent completion rate.
Russia attempted fully 1,000 passes fewer, and should not try to compete with the likes of Andres Iniesta or David Silva in the ball retention department.
Spain could conceivably pass their way through Russia if given the time and space in midfield – as they did against teams on their way to winning the World Cup in 2010.
Cherchesov’s team will need to ensure they do not allow Spain the time and space to make their possession count. Midfielders Roman Zobnin, Yury Gazinsky and the highly-rated Aleksandr Golovin will need to shut down the spaces in the center of the park and crowd out Spain as much as they can.
Spain can be harried into mistakes, as Morocco showed through their first goal in the 2-2 draw, when Iniesta and Sergio Ramos were pressed into a mix-up, allowing Khalid Boutaib to break through and score.
Russia were third in the stats for distances covered in the group stage, and they no doubt need to rack up some big numbers again today to chase down Spain and harry them.
3. RATTLE COSTA
Spain striker Diego Costa is one of the most difficult men to mark in world football. Costa likes nothing more than to wind up the opposition into committing rash fouls or lashing out, and is among the best finishers in the game – as he showed with his opening game brace against Portugal.
But just as much as he likes to rattle defenders, Costa himself can be rattled. The men tasked with keeping him in check will be Russia’s center-half pairing of Sergei Ignashevich, 38, and Ilya Kutepov, 24. Ignashevich in particular will not be able to match Costa’s mobility, but he can use all his experience to marshal Kutepov into position.
The younger defender should keep his cool in the face of any Costa provocation, and should show him into the wide channels as much as possible, where he is much less dangerous. Getting a foot in or niggling away at Costa has worked before, as he is just as likely to blow his fuse as he is to score a stunning goal.
Easier said than done, but shackling Costa would be a big step toward giving Russia a chance.
4. FREE CHERYSHEV
Midfielder Denis Cheryshev has been a revelation for Russia this tournament since coming on as a substitute in the opening game. He bagged a double in that match – including a sensational outside-of-the-foot volley – and followed that up with a goal and another man-of-the-match performance against Egypt.
Cheryshev was born in Russia but raised in Spain, where his dad played professionally. Formerly at Real Madrid, he now plays his club football at Villarreal.
He will be key to Russia’s attacking threat today, and Cherchesov must ensure that Spain’s inevitable dominance of possession does not see Cheryshev pinned back too far, thus nullifying him as an attacking outlet.
Golovin is Russia’s creative force and is also a goal threat, but Cheryshev has shown how dangerous he is going forward so far, so if others are to track back, then Golovin, Zobnin, and Gazinsky should play that role, leaving Cheryshev as free as possible to support Artem Dzyuba, who is expected to start up front.
5. USE DZYUBA
Artem Dzyuba will be Russia’s target man against Spain. The 6ft 3in striker has made the most of his chance at the World Cup, coming in for the out of form Fedor Smolov and finding the net against the Saudis and Egypt.
Dzyuba is a battering ram of a center forward, and while he does not have the most subtle touch, he is capable of making space with a sharpness in the box that belies his giant frame. He will relish the battle against Spain captain Sergio Ramos, who has looked shaky in Russia – particularly in the game against Morocco.
Russia should look to hit Dzuyba as soon as possible, not only for him to hold the ball up and bring Golovin and Cheryshev into play, but also when he is the box, where he will fancy his chances in the aerial battle against Ramos and Gerard Pique.