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It may not have been pretty, and not without controversy, but Russia’s win over Spain puts the hosts on a clear path to the final four 

Kashinath Bhattacharjee, Moscow

What a World Cup this has been so far!

The defending champions eliminated first. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo followed. Now it is turn for Andres Iniesta. Among the past seven champions only four are left – two each from South America and Europe. And a couple of them, Brazil and England, are yet to play their Last 16 matches.

Russia is fast becoming the modern version of South Korea of 2002. One of the co-hosts with Japan, they reached semifinal only to be defeated by Germany. In the quarter-final, the team managed by the Dutchman Guus Hiddink, defeated Spain in a shoot-out 5-3, despite two contentious disallowed goals for Spain. After 16 years, Spain had to face the hosts once again and their fate was the same. They lost 3-4 in a penalty shoot-out to Russia and the whole country went crazy.

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Russia has to win one more match against Croatia, to reach the last four. Until now, the country’s best World Cup was in 1966 where they were fourth. The late Lev Yashin was leading the side. Igor Akinfeev, another goalkeeper, is wearing the armband this time in 2018.

Their coach Stanislav Cherchesov said that he would become a god in Russia if his team beat Spain. That is a reality now. His team played only a handful passes, had 25 percent possession, but still prevented the ball-dominating Spain from really challenging the Russian goal. The only strike the 2010 champions scored was an own goal. The hosts had learned to suffer successfully and survive, a vintage art for football teams lacking in talent and scoring intent.

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The worst ranked team (70, at the beginning of World Cup) to host the premier tournament, the Russians had no faith in their team. They thought the side would be eliminated in the first round. Denis Cheryshev and his team scored eight in the first two matches to qualify for the knockout round. Russia erupted with joy and renewed faith, but encountered a shock 0-3 defeat to Uruguay in the last match of their Group A. Could they beat ‘Espana’, who had a disastrous history against host nations in major tournaments?

They did so. Not in style, but who cares. Russia were determined, disciplined and dedicated to the team’s cause. They started with 5-3-2, sat deep and did not allow the Spaniards to play the ball behind them. They welcomed the Spanish Armada into their defensive third. In those 30 yards from their goalpost, it was Russian check-posts everywhere. Everyone knows, how difficult it is to get a visa for Russia. The Spanish footballers were not permitted to enter that territory.

“We shall be prepared to play Spain knowing very well that they are too reluctant to let the ball go from their feet’, said Cherchesov in the press conference, 24-hours before the match.

He let the Spanish play with the ball and took away the match when his captain saved two penalties from Koke and Aspas in the tie-breaker.

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