July 1, 2018 / 6:06 PM / in 2 months

Spain fall victim to own patience and Russian resistance

MOSCOW (Reuters) - More than 74 percent possession, an astonishing 1,137 passes and utter territorial domination, yet the only statistic that counted in the end for Spain was the two penalties they missed after they strangled themselves out of the World Cup on Sunday.

Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia's Artem Dzyuba celebrates scoring their first goal REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Igor Akinfeev assumed instant Yuri Gagarin status by saving two of Spain’s spot kicks. However, in truth it was just about the only time the Russia goalkeeper was seriously tested as, despite pinning the hosts deep in their own half for most of the 120 minutes, the 2010 champions managed only nine shots on target - and precious few of those carried any venom.

Spain reached the pinnacle of the sport on the back of a game built on relentless passing aligned with bottomless patience and faith that they would always, eventually, find a way through.

On Sunday, that patience proved their undoing against a desperately tired and wilting last 16 opponent who should have been ripe to be sliced apart.

Instead, Spain seemed entirely incapable on increasing the pace as, minute by minute, home hopes grew from a long-shot dream, through a gradual realisation that their highly-ranked rivals were not actually that dangerous, to eventual delirious celebration.

Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Spain coach Fernando Hierro looks dejected after losing the penalty shootout REUTERS/Carl Recine

With 35 minutes on the clock Spain had made 300 passes to the 63 of Russia but had not mustered a single effort on target and led only through Sergei Ignashevich’s comical own goal.

Russia’s approach was to sit deep and allow the ball to be caressed around in front of them at little more than walking pace.

It looked a sensible approach as, with Andres Iniesta surprisingly dropped to the bench, none of the Spaniards seemed willing or capable to inject that game-changing moment of acceleration or inspiration that has been their trademark for a decade.

So a stalemate ensued – until after a rare attack Russia found their way back level via Artem Dzyuba’s 41st-minute penalty after Gerard Pique’s handball from a corner.

There was little change in the pattern after the break, forcing coach Fernando Hierro to introduce Iniesta.

With Russia withdrawing Dzyuba, the hosts played the last half hour of normal time without anyone left upfield as an outlet, with all 10 outfield players content to sit even deeper as Spain continued their possession domination.

Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Spain's Sergio Ramos celebrates scoring their first goal REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

EXHAUSTION

The home crowd greeted the arrival of extra time as if they had won the World Cup but Spain, seeing several of their rivals dropping to the floor with cramp and exhaustion, were no doubt confident that the hosts would eventually crack if they just kept rolling the ball from side to side.

The Russians, who covered more ground per-player than any other side in the group stage, deserve enormous credit for the work they put in to stay tight and close down every threat. Though, in truth the limited and slow-paced movement from Spain’s front men made it an easier task than it should have been.

They held firm as extra time reached the halfway point and then summoned a Herculean final effort in the final 15 minutes as Spain finally seemed to realise their looming predicament.

Preparing for their first major tournament shootout, it looked as if coach Stanislav Cherchesov might struggle to find five men with enough energy left to take a penalty.

In the end he needed only four after Akinfeev’s heroics completed one of the all-time great World Cup backs-to-the-wall performances and sent Russia into the quarter-finals.

Reporting by Mitch Phillips; Editing by Christian Radnedge

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