Russia’s last World Cup game against Uruguay brought the overachievers down to earth with a thud.
Their next one against Spain might just send them over the moon. The hosts will today play their most important match in three decades when they face the 2010 champions in Moscow in the third last 16 encounter of the tournament. They are making their first appearance in the World Cup knockout stages in the post-Soviet era as the ultimate underdogs – Spain have not lost a match in two years while Russia entered the tournament without winning a game in eight months.
The last competitive match between them saw the Spaniards prevail 3-0 in the semi-finals of Euro 2008.
“We want to perform a minor miracle,” said Russia forward Artem Dzyuba. “We want to give our supporters an even bigger present.”
The month-long extravaganza has always been about much more than football to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The hosts are spending a record $13 billion to put on a show that projects Putin’s vision of Russia as a global power that has regained its Soviet might. Russia’s stadiums were meant to wow the crowds. Its football team was not.
And then it did.
The men in red kicked off the tournament in Moscow’s 80 000-seat Luzhniki Stadium – the crucible of Soviet and Russian sport – with a 5-0 thumping of Saudi Arabia. The performance, including two goals from midfielder Denis Cheryshev, made a mockery of Russia’s ranking as the tournament’s worst team.
But it also came against lowly opposition and left many feeling a sense of relief that their lowly Sbornaya were not embarrassed on the world stage. Russia’s 3-1 defeat of Mohamed Salah’s Egypt raised more eyebrows.
The win came with its own caveat: Salah was not at his best after a shoulder injury he suffered in Liverpool’s Champions League loss to Real Madrid.
Yet Russia really were looking better than advertised.
The number of fans who thought they might actually win the whole thing edged up from 11 to 14 percent. – AFP
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