Russia books Croatia as penalty drama rules World Cup knockout
Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev was the hero as Russia beat 2010 winners Spain on penalties to set up a World Cup quarter-final against Croatia, who survived their own spot-kick drama on Sunday.
Fernando Hierro’s Spain totally dominated the match at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, hogging 74 percent of possession, but created few clear-cut chances and buckled under pressure when it mattered most.
Veteran goalkeeper Akinfeev saved penalties from Koke and Iago Aspas as Russia won the shootout 4-3, reaching the last eight for the first time since 1970, when they played as the Soviet Union.
The unlikely victory sparked emotional scenes as the rain poured down and there was jubilation in central Moscow, with disbelieving locals cheering, waving flags, blowing horns and yelling “Russ-i-a!”
There was more penalty drama in the later match in Nizhny Novgorod, with Croatia coming out on top 3-2 just minutes after Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel had saved a penalty at the end of extra-time.
Five spot-kicks were saved during the nail-biting shootout, two by Schmeichel and three by Croatia goalkeeper Danijel Subasic.
Earlier, Mathias Jorgensen gave Denmark the lead after just 58 seconds but Mario Mandzukic levelled for Croatia in the fourth minute and the sides remained locked at 1-1 at the end of extra time.
Russia are the lowest-ranked nation in the tournament — a lowly 70th in the world — and were not expected to progress beyond the first round but they now find themselves in the last eight.
“We were hoping for penalties,” Akinfeev said after the match ended 1-1 after extra time, following a Sergei Ignashevich own goal and an assured Artem Dzyuba penalty.
“We are having a fantastic World Cup. Not just our fans, but the fans of other countries are getting a sense of this atmosphere and understood that Russians really know how to play football and want to play football.”
Russia came into the tournament derided by their own supporters after a string of defeats in warm-up matches but they thrashed Saudi Arabia 5-0 in their opener and then swept aside Egypt 3-1, making even their own sceptical public believe.
The result is a disaster for Spain, whose preparations for the World Cup were wrecked when their manager Julen Lopetegui was sacked on the eve of the tournament after he took the vacant Real Madrid coach’s job.
Spain shipped five goals in their three group matches and there were major questions over the form of goalkeeper David de Gea coming into the knockout phase.
Hierro rejected any suggestion the team would have fared better had the Spanish federation not decided to axe Lopetegui after arriving in Russia.
“We had opportunities to win this match but we ended up in a penalty shootout which is basically a lottery, and we weren’t lucky,” he said.
“I don’t think you can talk about the team breaking down or there being any sort of collapse,” the former Real Madrid captain said. “In football there’s a fine line between winning and losing.”