MOSCOW (Reuters) - Hosts Russia have exceeded expectations after advancing to the World Cup quarter-finals with a win on penalties over Spain but they will need more firepower if they are to give Croatia a run for their money on Saturday.
The Russians played with five at the back and just a lone striker in Artem Dzyuba and it worked against Spain, who managed just one chance in the entire 90 minutes on Sunday.
Having played more than 1,000 passes but never got to threaten the Russians in the box, the Spaniards made it look easy for the hosts, who are the lowest-ranked team in the tournament.
But it will not be the same against Croatia, with the Balkan nation also needing penalties to advance over Denmark on Sunday but already having shown flashes of their stellar attacking game when they beat Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland to top their group.
With players such as world-class midfielder Luca Modric and a string of top-level forwards including Mario Mandzukic, Ante Rebic, Andrej Kramaric and Ivan Perisic, Croatia will challenge Russia’s backline far more than Spain’s lacklustre Diego Costa did in the entire game.
Zlatko Dalic’s team scored at least two goals in each of their three group matches, including firing three past hapless Argentina, to stake a claim as one of the dark horses in this tournament.
Their attacks will also come in all shapes and sizes, whether they are quick breaks, long crosses for Mandzukic, so
dominant in aerial battles, or individual displays of skills and powerful shots from in or around the box.
They will certainly not be as one-sided as Spain’s attacking options.
The Russians breathed a collective sigh of relief after clinching a last eight spot and triggering wild celebrations across the vast country but coach Stanislav Cherchesov attempted to keep his players grounded.
The only other time the have faced an attacking team in this tournament — Uruguay — Russia went down 3-0 without putting up any real resistance.
“I had to persuade them this was the only way (against Spain) as they don’t like this system,” said the coach, whose side also had one shot on target in two hours of football.
Cherchesov knows his players stuck to his plan of sitting back and soaking up the Spanish attempts to break through with their once-feared tiki-taka passing game but against Croatia his team will need to also score and just Dzyuba may not be enough.
Russia will be without midfielder Yuri Zhirkov who is out with a leg injury but Cherchesov is confident his team has not yet peaked.
“We have been working after each game and we have some time now to check who is ready to do what (against Croatia). We look who is fit, less fit. On the fitness level we can show more here.”
As for his reserved celebrations which were limited to a brief raising of the hands on the final whistle, Cherchesov said: “This is the beginning and I have to save my emotions for the later.”
Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty