World Cup 2018

Spain vs Russia: Chalk and cheese could cause another upset

 • by Mark Thompson
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On paper, this tie looks like a bit of a walkover.

Spain are World Cup winners and twice European champions; The Russian public were so negative about their squad before the tournament started that there was a worry they wouldn’t make it out of the group at all.

Yet this tournament has done funny things, and Russia have shown glimpses of quality. After all, it was a superb Luis Suárez free-kick and an own goal that put them 2-0 down against Uruguay, before a second yellow to Igor Smolnikov put them down to ten men.

The crowds at this World Cup have also been surprisingly loud, and seem to have had an effect on games where the locals have chosen a side. Could home advantage work its magic here too?

How they got on in the groups

Also at play is the fact that Spain did not do as well in Group B as it was thought they might. After impressing against Portugal – a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick the only thing to un-do them – they struggled to break down Iran before drawing 2-2 against Morocco, in a match that they never led.

In fact, in the entire group stage, they were only leading games for just over an hour (66 minutes), a statistic that must be quite concerning for new coach Fernando Hierro.

The Julen Lopetegui saga has barely been mentioned in the press since the performance against Portugal, but perhaps it should be. Spain are clearly not right.

Russia, meanwhile, have been one of the few nations to perform above expectations. Against Saudi Arabia and Egypt, they created chances worth 3.99 Expected Goals, taking into account shot placement – a figure that is actually larger than what Uruguay mustered against those two sides.

That opposition may not have been on Spain’s level, but it perhaps indicates that the hosts are closer to Uruguay’s level than their 3-0 defeat to them suggests.

The match-ups

Spain play how they have played for the last decade or so, by and large.

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The youthful additions of Isco, Lucas Vázquez, and Marco Asensio may have added some zest, but for the most part they are the tika-taka team we have grown to know and – if not love, then appreciate.

They may be more tika-taka – with all of the negative connotations of that term – than they ever have been. The point of possession is not to have it for possession’s sake, but to move the opponent around – something that Hierro’s side have struggled to do.

In their group matches, they took a shot for every 12.8 passes in the final third – far above Portugal’s 6.9, and even above Argentina’s rate against Iceland (9.1).

Russia are almost the mirror image.

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Verdict

Given that Russia’s game is heavily characterised by playing long balls and that Spain’s has been characterised by (largely sterile) possession, this game might suit the hosts down to the ground.

Denis Cheryshev and Juventus transfer target Aleksandr Golovin could enhance their already growing reputations by racing up the pitch and nicking a goal on the counter-attack.

This World Cup has already seen surprises – Germany’s elimination, Croatia’s convincing demolition of Argentina, England and Belgium being placed in a situation where a loss was arguably preferable – maybe we’ll see another.

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