MOSCOW — The weaker side of the World Cup bracket produced two games that were a cut below what we saw on the day before, but at least two penalty-kick shootouts gave us some high-stakes drama as Russia upset Spain (after a 1-1 tie) and Croatia prevailed against Denmark (also after a 1-1 tie).
Igor Akinfeev was the hero for Russia, making two saves in the shootout, including a kick save on Iago Aspas that sealed the Russians' progression to the quarterfinals. In the second match, Danijel Subasic outdueled Kasper Schmeichel in the shootout, making three saves to his counterpart's two, sending Croatia into the last eight where it will face off with the surprise hosts.
Here are my three thoughts on the day:
• Spain was always missing something at this World Cup
Flashes became clear as soon as the opening 3-3 tie against Portugal (David De Gea’s howler, Gerard Piqué’s silly late foul before Portugal’s equalizing free kick), and the concerns became louder in an underwhelming 1-0 win against Iran (no cutting edge) and especially a 2-2 tie against Morocco (shaky set-piece defending). By the end of Spain’s elimination against Russia on penalties Sunday, the deficiencies of this Spain team were obvious:
— Emergency coach Fernando Hierro had no Plan B. In the wake of Julen Lopetegui’s astonishing firing two days before Spain’s first game, there was a tendency to say Spain still had the same players, that Hierro was coming from the inside and it wouldn’t be a big problem in the end. That was wrong. Tied against a Russia team that was perfectly happy to defend, Hierro never recognized the urgency of the situation and never did anything meaningful to try and change the game in the second half. He acted like a coach who just assumed that Spain was Spain, and the goal would eventually come. It didn’t. Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales made a huge mistake firing Lopetegui, and it came back to haunt the 2010 champions.
— Spain missed an in-his-prime Andrés Iniesta and someone to play the Xavi role. Possession is great, but it doesn’t mean anything if you’re not creating scoring chances. Without Iniesta in the starting lineup, Spain was already missing someone who brought something a little different, who actually moves on the field instead of standing stationary. Isco tried to create for Spain, but nobody has yet to come close to matching the talents that Xavi brought to his national team. The feeling of this team was that tiki-taka has turned stale without the truly special talents that marked the team in 2010.
— The Spanish group in the back wasn’t good enough. You expected coming into Russia 2018 that the veteran central defense tandem of Sergio Ramos and Piqué would be one of the steadiest in the tournament. It wasn’t even close to that. Piqué made numerous mistakes, including his penalty against Russia, and Ramos wasn’t nearly as steady as he typically is for Real Madrid—both in his marking (especially on set pieces) and in his mistakes on the ball in his own end. Nor was De Gea good here, and it wasn’t just his howler against Portugal. At Man United, De Gea has made his bones on preventing goals nearly every game that other keepers would let in. He never did that in Russia, and he’ll regret that he didn’t do better on any of the Russian penalties (during the game and the shootout).
Spain had a golden opportunity to reach the final as the only powerhouse on its side of the World Cup bracket. So naturally it was the first team on that side of the bracket to lose, which pretty well captures this World Cup so far.
• Croatia was as disappointing as Spain was, even if it survived
The Croatians were the tournament’s best team during the group stage, full stop. That’s why it was a giant bummer to see them fail to sustain that momentum against Denmark. Give France credit for raising its game once the knockout rounds started and producing something memorable against Argentina, something that was a distinct upgrade from what France gave us in the group stage. Spain couldn’t do it, and Croatia didn’t do it, even if part of that was due to Denmark’s efforts to make things difficult for Croatia’s midfield.
All that said, let’s raise a glass to the two keepers, Schmeichel and Subasic, for their exemplary penalty saves in one of the better shootout duels you’ll see.
• Russia wasn’t great, but it executed a legit gameplan
Let’s not overpraise Russia, which was playing for penalties early in the second half. But Russian coach Stanislav Cherchesov came up with a reasonable gameplan to stay with Spain—a five-man back line, defend in numbers and try to hit on the counter—and his players executed it, even after going down 1-0 early.
The Russians were rewarded when Koke gave away a cheap corner kick and Piqué gave away a penalty on the ensuing set piece. But Artem Dzyuba’s spot kick was spot on, just as all the Russian's penalties were in the shootout despite great pressure playing in front of their home fans.
Grant Wahl has covered soccer for 22 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, Masters of Modern Soccer, details the craft of soccer position by position. You can order it here.