Friday 20 July 2018

No sign of hosts' luck running out in their remarkable World Cup campaign of Russian roulette

Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov. Photo: Getty Images
Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Hayward

If you want next week's Lottery numbers, ask a Russian. If you need a big image makeover, the 2018 World Cup hosts will sort you out. Everything they touch, on and off the pitch, is turning to gold. How long can their luck last?

Russia's fans swarmed to the Luzhniki Stadium expecting to watch their team go out. They came hoping to achieve respectability.

And when their 38-year-old centre-back Sergey Ignashevich scored in his own net after 11 minutes, the last rites on Russia's campaign were ready to be read.

A Mexican wave was seen not long afterwards.

Oh well, at least they made it out of the group stage as the lowest-ranked team in the tournament.

Yet on they go, these hard runners, these odds-defiers, to a quarter-final in Sochi, in England's half of the draw, as The Kremlin's winning streak continues. The world came here reluctantly, or perhaps ambivalently.

The stink from the 2018-2022 joint bidding race conspired with geo-political turmoil and oppressive domestic policies to cause visitors to wonder what they were getting themselves into. In the event, the darker realities have been nicely packed away - not least the nationalistic hooligans who were so expertly 'disappeared' by Russia's police and security services.

Some were doubtless kicking their heels abroad or yanking at their tethers at home when Igor Akinfeev saved Iago Aspas's penalty with an outstretched leg to set-off a party across 11 time zones. You can imagine how those thwarted hoolies received the Mexican wave and this latest display of benign Russian patriotism.

The 5-0 crushing of Saudi Arabia was the first clue that Russia's team might keep pace with their country's organisational drive. Then came a 3-1 win over Egypt to secure qualification, followed by a discomfiting 3-0 defeat to Uruguay, by which time the team's impressive running stats were being scrutinised.

A great World Cup (so far) had produced a Russian surge to the knockout rounds. However, that surely was going to be the end of that, especially when Stanislav Cherchesov, Russia's coach, left his top-scorer Denis Cheryshev on the bench for the Spain game, and removed Artem Dzyuba, his best striker, after 65 minutes. Not forgetting the injury to Yuri Zhirkov, which removed him at half-time.

All through the game Russia watched the Spanish carousel, stuck in their own-half, blocking and defying, with only the odd breakout. Out-gunned by Spain, Russia walked the path of pragmatism, on which Spain ended up face-down.

Half-time brought relief from Spain's relentless circular passing, but it was also reached with Russia level. Dzyuba's penalty from a handball by Gerard Pique prompted his salute: one hand gripping his crown, the other in a military salute. He took the fight to Pique and Sergio Ramos and set the tone for the siege.

A team without household names defied Spain's attempts to inflict death by a thousand cuts. According to one count, Fernando Hierro's men exchanged almost 1,100 passes - and what did they have to show for it? Ignashevich's own goal.

Even that was transitory, because the old man scored his penalty in Russia's 4-3 shoot-out win - a spectacle that turned the Luzhniki delirious.

Russia's wonderfully businesslike coach came up with the plan to smother and mug Spain.

"They are better than us in many ways. Had we chosen a different tactic we wouldn't have fared so well," Cherchesov said. "This was the only way out."

Cherchesov played the tough old coach routine, but there was a lot more going on beneath the surface. He chose not to watch Dzyuba's penalty in regular time and turned his back on the shoot-out too. He was asked why.

"I was looking at the scoreline so I saw everything," he said. "I believe it's only the beginning so I have to save my emotions for the future."

Only the beginning. Some statement.

"I'm thinking only about the next game. These are very simple and not very sophisticated emotions," he continued. "As for fitness levels, I believe we can show more."

So now a side who were "doomed to fail," according to the Moscow Times, leave the field with Russian fans shouting the so-called ultimate compliment from the stands. "Real men," they yelled at Cherchesov's players.

Good policing, good infrastructure and good conviviality have now been joined by the most unlikely plaudit: good team. Or, if not 'good team' in the aesthetic sense, certainly 'effective team'.

The last-eight is already far enough for Russia to call their contribution on the pitch a success. The quarter-finals take them south to Sochi, thus allowing Russia to overlay, in part, the memory of one of the biggest doping scandals, at the Winter Olympics. They write their own scripts out here.

© Daily Telegraph, London

Telegraph.co.uk

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