Adios, Ramos! Spain dumped out after shootout drama to leave captain in tears as Russia’s fairytale home World Cup continues

Published on – July 1, 2018 – 10:30 pm

Iago Aspas went down the middle. It wasn’t a good penalty. Decent height for a goalkeeper, not struck with any real certainty. It was all too much for Spain by then.

Iago Aspas went down the middle. It wasn’t a good penalty. Decent height for a goalkeeper, not struck with any real certainty. It was all too much for Spain by then.

Igor Akinfeev, in goal, had committed himself to his right, but left enough in the heart of goal that he might get lucky. He got lucky. Aspas’s shot struck his left boot and disappeared up in the air like a clearance. The roar was deafening. The pitch invasion, by Russian players who had looked dead on their feet moments earlier, as thunderous as an cavalry charge.

Russia were through; Spain were gone. Fernando Hierro’s great gamble, leaving Andres Iniesta out of his first tournament knockout starting line-up in 12 years, had not paid off. Spain were a mish-mash of ideas and concepts. They had Diego Costa upfront but never gave him the service he requires. They played endless passes in midfield, but left the best passer in the country imprisoned on the bench for more than an hour.

Russia were, in their own way, magnificent. They played as if down to ten men, but looked as if they had 20 on the field. They were everywhere, smothering, resisting, regrouping to go again.

Oscar Tabarez of Uruguay talked about possession being over-rated after defeating Portugal on Saturday night – this game as good as reduced some of football’s biggest theories to the dustbin.

Russia saw the ball no more than 20 per cent of the time and when they did, they hoofed if. If coach Stanislav Cherchesov actively played for penalties it was a genius manoeuvre. They didn’t miss one, of four, even if Aleksandr Golovin got a little lucky with one that appeared to pass through David de Gea, as much as under him.

Spain, meanwhile, looked crushed by their inability to break such average opponents, Iniesta went first and scored, of course, then Gerard Pique; but Koke capped a poor game with a poor shot, which Akinfeev saved.

Sergio Ramos scored but with Russia leading 4-3, Aspas had to put his away or say goodbye. In many ways, it summed up Spain’s World Cup. They have been unconvincing throughout, whether throwing away a lead against Portugal, needing as fluke goal to beat Iran, or struggling against Morocco.

The sheer weight of passes made here might look impressive – Ramos made the most of any player over 90 minutes, 141, since record began in 1966 – but what did it get them. Akinfeev made as many good saves in the shootout as in the two hours that preceded it. John Terry will be happy at least; his miss in 2008 is no longer going to be the most famous penalty at the Luzhniki Stadium.

When the whistle blew to conclude extra time, many in the Russian crowd celebrated as if they had won; which, in a way, they had. This was a team it was feared would embarrass the nation; would exit at the group stage, maybe without winning a game.

Yet here they were, taking the mighty Spain to the limit. Not, toe to toe, admittedly. With every last man behind the ball and resistance that represented the pinnacle of dogged persistence. Russian bodies were already in a state on 90 minutes, so the 30 additional must have felt like torture.

They had all recovered in time for the dash to greet Akinfeev, though – and on this occasion not a shred of suspicion should be allowed to sully that adrenaline rush.

Quite how Spain went in level at half-time here is a mystery that will confound strategists, and advocates of possession football alike. They were, it is fair to say, a different class to Russia.

They had, for the most part, all of the ball. At one stage the share went up to 80-20, for much of the half it sat at 75-25. Yet five minutes before half-time, Spain had only had one touch of the ball in Russia’s penalty area – and it wasn’t the goal.

That came about through Russian defensive incompetence, not any great skill on Spain’s part. It was started by a horribly crude and mistimed challenge by Yury Zhirkov on Nacho on the right, resulting in a free-kick. Whipped in by Liverpool target Marco Asensio, it was diverted into goal by Sergey Ignashevich, who was trying to mark Sergio Ramos at the time.

For once, the Spain and Real Madrid controversialist could not be blamed for the events that unfolded.

Ignashevich was too focussed on holding his man, not focussed enough on proper defending on the trajectory of the ball. He had his arms gripped around the upper torso, both men falling as Asensio delivered an inswinging ball.

In the melee, it hit Ignashevich on a heel and diverted into his own net. Justice done. If he hadn’t saved Spain the trouble of scoring it would surely have been a penalty.

Just 12 minutes gone and the Luzhniki fell silent. The plan was in ruins. Coach Stanislav Cherchesov was playing a five-man defence, a tight three in midfield and giant striker Artem Dzyuba as his lone target man.

He clearly intended to smother Spain for as long as Russia’s abilities would allow. He was as good as playing for penalties from kick-off.

So, for a significant spell, Spain dominated and Russia just watched, powerless. Pass after pass, backwards, forward, square, backwards again. It wasn’t greatly inspiring or entertaining – certainly not after the hammer and tongs element if Saturday’s games – but it was dominating.

The crowd were becalmed by Spain’s superiority even if Russia’s goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev was strangely underworked.

So when Aleksandr Golovin curled a shot just wide after 36 minutes it served as a reminder that nothing could be taken for granted, even if Russia looked as likely to score an equaliser as a century in the Ashes. And then, from nowhere, the scores were level.

Alexander Samedov took a corner which Dzyuba met with a header. Gerard Pique had jumped with one arm in the air, and the ball hit that to a deafening chorus of exclamations.

It looked harsh on Pique, who wasn’t even looking in the direction of the ball – he actually had his back to it – but referee Bjorn Kuipers of Holland had no doubt it was a penalty.

Dzyuba stepped up and sent David de Gea the wrong way. It really hasn’t been his World Cup, so far.