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World Cup Round of 16: Can hosts Russia withstand 2010 champions Spain?

Sunday 1st July 2018

The third of eight World Cup last 16 games pits Spain against Russia in the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, on Sunday afternoon. 

La Roja reached this stage by topping Group B, despite mixed performances in their three matches. Meanwhile, the Russians finished as Group A runners-up, totalling a point more than their next opponents.   

It's difficult to judge which of the two sides comes into this game in better form. Both disappointed last time out. Spain relied on a late equaliser against Morocco. Russia lost 3-0 to Uruguay.

It's just over a decade since the two teams last met. They are familiar foes in the European Championship, having played three times between 2004-08. Fourteen years ago, Spain beat Russia 1-0 in their group stage opener. Both nations suffered early elimination, though. Portugal and Greece progressed before later meeting in the final.   

Four years on, the Spaniards ran out 4-1 winners, although the Sbornaya bounced back to make the last eight. Both sides won their quarter-finals, meaning they would collide once again. La Roja triumphed 3-0 and went on to lift the trophy by defeating Germany. 

Spain

Group B Winners

The pre-tournament issues that led to Fernando Hierro replacing Julen Lopetegui have had an effect on La Roja. They stuttered through the group with a narrow win over Iran as well as draws against Portugal and Morocco. Such form isn't worthy of potential World Cup winners. Yet, considering their chaotic preparation, perhaps they deserve credit for qualifying at all.  

Hierro is spoilt for choice ahead of the last 16 game, with a fully fit squad to select from. Despite calls from both the public and media, Spain's boss is expected to largely stick with the same eleven which got this far. There's only one jersey up for grabs. Thiago is pushing hard, but Koke is likely to start.   

Based on their current form, the Spanish shouldn't look beyond Russia. Should they win, it's imperative Sergio Busquets stays out of the referee's notebook. The Barcelona enforcer is the only Spaniard a booking away from suspension. He would be missed greatly in the quarter-final. 

Russia

Group A Runners-up

Stanislav Cherchesov also has the vast majority of his squad available. The only absentee is Igor Smolnikov, who was sent off against Uruguay. However, it won't be a huge cause for distress as he's the second choice right-back. Mario Fernandes will return against Spain having played the first two games.

Another selection issue, although this time a luxury one, concerns Alan Dzagoev. The midfielder has returned to training after picking up an injury in the opening match. He is considered a first-teamer for Russia, but his replacement, Denis Cheryshev, has been outstanding in this World Cup. Dropping the Villarreal winger would be harsh. Dzagoev will most likely begin on the bench.     

The Russians made a great start to the tournament, picking up back-to-back victories over Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Defeat to Uruguay has partially deflated spirits. However, the game was a dead rubber, with the hosts resting some key players. Sbornaya fans should remain confident that their best eleven can cause problems for any side. 

If Russia do conquer Spain, they will hope Yury Gazinsky, Aleksandr Golovin and Fyodor Smolov all avoid yellow cards. The three are a caution away from suspension.    

Prediction

Spain start as the overwhelming favourites. Their players are performing at a much higher standard than the Russians. La Roja also possess former World Cup winners.  

Russia have delivered a good performance so far. Moreover, this game takes place in their own house, with eager home support. Don't expect the Spanish to walk it, as many believe. A penalty shootout could be needed. At that stage, it's a coin toss to decide the winner.  

Gerry Johnston

I am a 33-year-old sports writer from Ireland who enjoys watching European football. My main focus is La Liga, but I do keep a close eye on all of the major leagues throughout the world.


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