Well, that was to be expected. After a breathless double-header on Saturday, Russia and Spain served up a legitimate World Cup stinker, with the hosts triumphing 4-3 in a dramatic penalty shoot-out but only after we all survived 120 minutes of instantly forgettable football.
Spain took an early lead through Sergei Ignashevich’s own-goal, the ageing Russian defender unintentionally converting into his own net as he tried to wrestle Sergio Ramos to the ground.
But the 2010 winners were guilty of some suspect defending, too, with Gerard Piqué’s handball allowing Artem Dzyuba to equalise from the penalty spot.
From there, Spain struggled to find an extra gear in the second half as Russia defended stoutly to frustrate them.
Then, when extra-time failed to separate them, we got our first taste of penalty drama in Russia. Andrés Iniesta, Piqué and Ramos scored for Spain while Fedor Smolov, Ignashevich, Chelsea transfer target Aleksandr Golovin and Denis Cheryshev converted for the hosts.
But the hero was keeper Igor Akinfeev, saving first from Koke and then from Iago Aspas to send his country through to the last eight and the 2010 winners home in heartache.
Ignashevich should know better
Ignashevich will turn 39 in two weeks. This was his 126th cap for Russia. He has played well over 700 games at club level.
He is a burly, physically imposing centre-half who is an inch taller than Ramos. So it beggars belief the Russian stalwart would feel the need to rugby tackle the Spanish captain to the ground at the far post.
As Marco Asensio sent a curling free-kick towards the back post, Ignashevich grabbed hold of Ramos and wouldn’t let go.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait and see if the referee/VAR would combine to punish Ignashevich. No, he got his comeuppance before the referee could intervene. Focusing on man-handling Ramos meant Ignashevich had no idea where the ball was. It struck his leg and flew beyond Igor Akinfeev to give Spain an early lead and force Russia into recalibrating their approach.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 1, 2018
During this tournament in Russia, we have seen several instances of referees punishing defenders who think the penalty area is a wrestling ring. Russia surpassed expectations in reaching the last-16 – it’s a pity that such a baffling lapse in judgement put them on the back foot so early on.
He didn’t learn his lesson either. In extra-time, Ignashevich could be seen grappling with Piqué. He could breathe a monumental sigh of relief, however, as the referee dismissed Spain’s penalty claims following a VAR review.
Hierro’s big calls don’t pay off
Fernando Hierro’s team selection raised more than a few eyebrows. While the novice Spain manager kept faith in David de Gea, Iniesta was dropped. It was an enormous call to bench a national treasure who had started 21 consecutive tournament matches for La Roja stretching back to 2010.
Of course, Hierro would have been hailed as a tactical genius had Spain raced into a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes having played some irresistible football.
In truth, they never came close to achieving anything like that. Following Ignashevich’s own-goal, Spain were content with being comfortable. They played pass after pass but lacked purpose, incision and urgency and were punished for their attitude when Russia hit back through Dzyuba’s penalty.
Russia, sitting deep and looking nervous, were there for the taking. Spain, however, failed to recognise the opportunity with Asensio and Koke failing to impress having been given the nod ahead of Iniesta and Thiago Alcântara, two players blessed with substantial creative tendencies.
Spain had 75 per cent of possession in the first 45 minutes, having completed 394 passes to Russia’s 102. However, they failed to threaten Akinfeev and struggled to create a chance of note with Diego Costa cutting an increasingly frustrated and isolated figure in attack as his team-mates struggled to find that killer pass.
The inclusion of Asensio and Koke pointed towards a faster, more direct Spain. We ended up getting the opposite.
Thrilling stuff. pic.twitter.com/aMAQf0cyfq
— Oscar (@Reunewal) July 1, 2018
Spain’s woes at defending set-pieces
Spain have been surprisingly fragile when defending set-pieces in Russia. Despite the experience of Piqué and Ramos, and the added height of Sergio Busquets and Costa, they have looked far from convincing when faced with a quality ball into the box.
In the 2-2 draw with Morocco, Ramos was beaten in the air by Youssef En-Nesyri. There were also a few nervous moments when dealing with corners and free-kicks against Iran.
They got away with it then but their Achilles heel reared its ugly head once more against the hosts. Piqué misjudged the flight of Aleksandr Samedov’s corner and allowed the ball to go over his head before preventing Dzyuba’s goal-bound header with his arm. It was a clear penalty and allowed Russia back into the game.
Spent Silva needs a rest
It was an intense and gruelling season on the pitch for the 32-year-old and an emotional one off it. In May, Silva was able to take his son, Mateo, home for the first time having spent five months in hospital after being born extremely prematurely in December.
With that, it’s entirely understandable that Silva has looked far from his best at the World Cup. It wasn’t surprising when his number went up after 67 minutes against Russia as Iniesta came on in his place.
Silva struggled to control the tempo in his usual imperious manner. He completed 26 of his 33 passes but failed to make a single key pass and didn’t once find Costa.
Still a magical technician and an important player for both club and country, Silva looked as though he would benefit from a few weeks off after this tournament.
Spain need a reboot
Like Germany and Argentina, Spain are another mighty World Cup nation who will be forced into some soul-searching after a disappointing campaign in Russia.
It’s important to remember, too, that Ramos, Piqué, Iniesta and Silva are all the wrong side of 30.
Like Germany’s post-2006 Das Reboot, Spain are in need of an overhaul. They were simply not good enough in Russia. They failed to beat Portugal, scraped past Iran and needed a last-minute goal to draw with Morocco.
In Moscow, they failed to break down Russia in open play after 120 minutes. While it’s admirable that Hierro came in to replace Julen Lopetegui at the last minute, the former Real Madrid captain evidently struggled to get the best out of this team.
Of course, Spain’s next chapter will develop without one of the men central to their trophy-laden golden period as Iniesta announced his retirement from international football immediately following the result.
Iniesta, who made his Spain debut in 2006, won the 2010 World Cup and the European Championship in 2008 and 2012 during a glittering 12-year international career.
“Sometimes the endings are not as one dreams,” said the former Barcelona midfielder. “It is the saddest day of my career.”
Spain require a change of direction as opposed to the replication of the same ideas. At the heart of that need for change is the acceptance that Iniesta is utterly unique and irreplaceable.