Saturday’s results saw the retirement of Javier Mascherano from international football and, if the gossip is to be believed, he may well be followed down that path by Lionel Messi in the not too distant future. We all knew that Anders Iniesta was to retire from international duty come the end of the World Cup but few thought it would come in the manner that it did. It wasn’t so much the loss to Russia that signalled the end of the road for this great Spain team but rather the manner of it – they played like a ghastly parody of themselves, all pass no pop. In sport, like life, even greats like Iniesta don’t always get to choose the manner of their departure. Sure he did that at Barcelona already.
Following the walking paced dirge of the first game, things rapidly began to remedy themselves in Croatia v Denmark game – the opening two goals were the quickest in World Cup history. Any notions that those goals would signal a sea change in the fortunes of the watching public weren’t long in being disabused, however, as the excitement in this game was concentrated in the first and final five minutes but by god, the tension at the end was overwhelming. Long may it continue.
Spain 1-1 Russia (3-5 on penalties)
It took some time for this game to spark to life. The opening exchanges were scrappy enough with Spain dominating possession to the vocal displeasure of the home crowd. Nothing strange there, then. However, events took a turn for the weird after just eight minutes. Following a heavy foul on Nacho, the resultant free-kick was converted for a Spain goal in one of the most comedic pieces of play that this column has seen all summer. Sergei Ignashevich decided to eschew anything he’d ever learned about proper defending and concluded that tackling Sergio Ramos to the ground at the back post was the way to go. Chances are that a penalty would have been called against him but fate intervened and, in his desire to ‘tackle’, he never bothered looking at the ball and managed to put it past his own ‘keeper. That didn’t stop Ramos claiming it as his own, mind.
The early goal wasn’t enough to whet Spain’s appetite for more and they continued to indulge in keep-ball without really causing much trouble for Russia. This resulted in Diego Costa becoming increasingly peripheral, snarling on the margins but without being able to do anything about it. He must have felt like he was playing for Russia. The trouble with not letting Diego play with the ball is that he becomes agitated and more prone to losing his temper – Russia’s first attempt came in the 36th minute, Costa’s first foul in the 37th. Spain had to make sure that his involvement was a credit to the team, not to their detriment.
It was still all too slow for Spain, with possession for possession’s sake their only concern. Russia were using such a deep block and were content to launch it to the big man up front, that there was very little space for Spain to work their way into. Then, in the 40th minute, Russia scored. From a corner, the ball was whipped into Artem Dzyuba and the big man duly met it with his head. Unhappily for Spain, Pique’s raised arm blocked the ball and the referee pointed to the spot. Spain complained but it was such an easy call for the ref to make that VAR wasn’t even required. Dyzuba stepped forward and blasted the ball home from 12 yards out.
Before the ref blew up for half time, there was at least one headed chance for Costa; it’s not how Spain play but any type of service for their striker would be better than nothing and the more physical the better as far as he’s concerned. With affairs finely poised at the beginning of the second half, the upset was still very much on the cards.
The second half began as the first had ended, sometimes frenetic and sometimes static but Spain were still labouring to create any real opportunities for Costa, or indeed any other player who fancied a pop. The best bit of news they had was when Ramos and Pique’s tormentor, Artem Dzyuba, was called ashore after having run himself into the ground. For Spain, Andreas Iniesta was brought on for David Silva in an attempt to prise open the stubborn Russian defence. Again, it was generally all Spain on the ball but whenever Russia broke forward, there was genuine panic amongst Spain’s defenders.
At times, Spain reminded this column about a story Roald Dahl wrote about the mating behaviour of the Bull Frog in east Africa. The male would call out repeatedly at night until, if chance were to favour him, a female would hop along to his side. The problem was that the Bull Frog, having bellowed for so long, forgot why he was doing that in the first place and instead was besotted by the sound of his own voice and would ignore his disgruntled lady. Similarly, Spain appear to be so much in thrall to their control of the ball and the pitch, that they’ve forgotten the purpose of the game is to score goals. Granted, this is also the most difficult thing to do in the game but you have to try. After 80 minutes, Spain had mustered over 700 passes and only three shots – go figure.
The remaining minutes meandered in the manner we had become accustomed to until the referee, mercifully, blew up for full time. With the scores level, we had another 30 minutes to look forward to although, outside of the two nations involved, no-one really was. Spain’s main tactic seemed to be to keep on keeping on in the knowledge that the Russian players would wilt quicker than they would in the intense heat. And wilting they were, a couple of counter-attacks aside, they were happy to boot the ball away and defend, defend, defend.
If nothing else, the first 15 minutes gave us a historic moment – for the first time in World Cup history, teams were afforded a fourth substitution and the name of the person to claim the honour of being first was Russian midfielder, Aleksandr Yerokhin. That was literally the only event of note in an otherwise exceptionally boring 15 minutes. Over the entire match, not one Spain player looked to grab the game by the scruff of the neck, a la Kylian Mbappe from the day before. Yes, Isco buzzed and fizzed but amongst the packed Russian defence, there was precious little probing and he was as good as Spain got.
In the second 15 minutes of extra time, the rain came down. VAR nearly did too but on review, the referee was unable to ascertain who pulled who and Spain didn’t get the penalty they wanted. Just a few short minutes later and they’d have plenty of them. And that was it; the third game of knock-out football was to give us our first penalty shootout. Russia had got what they wanted, Spain deserved little else and neutrals across the world thanked all the gods that it was nearly over.
Iniesta was first up for Spain and put it away. It occurred to this column at the time that, if they were to lose, that would be the last ball he would ever kick for Spain. And so it came to pass. Both Koke and Aspas missed their respective penalties and it was done – the hosts were through and this once great Spain team had finally run out of road. They had only themselves to blame, or perhaps that is too harsh. They have illuminated football on the world stage for over a decade but in recent years, they seem to have become a caricature of themselves – to use a particularly pleasant phrase, fur coat no knickers. For Russia, they are through to the quarter-finals – a place beyond their wildest dreams.
Russia are now 20/1 with most bookmakers to lift the trophy. Check out the best outright winner odds with our favourite bookies here:
Croatia 1-1 Denmark (3-2 on penalties)
A slow, muggy evening saw the quickest goal of the World Cup thus far. Before 60 seconds had passed, Denmark had taken the lead. From a throw-in, the ball made it’s way across the Croatian box to Mathias Joergensen at the back post. He toe-poked it and the ball came off the inside of Danijel Subasic’s foot and made its way into the net. The watching world was shocked but possibly none more so than Croatia – how would they respond from such an early setback? The answer was to score quickly themselves. More poor attempts at clearing in the box, only this time in Denmark’s area, saw Mario Mandzukic show his predatory instincts by pouncing on a loose ball and bundling it home past Kasper Schmeichel. In less than five minutes, we had already seen as many goals as were scored in 120 minutes in the previous game. It was a good start to the night but an indicator of future performances.
With matters levelled so early on, it was effectively a new beginning following the crazy start. It didn’t take long for Croatia to start bossing the play with Luka Modric quickly finding his feet and passes. It was the eastern European team who carried the greater threat as Denmark had to readjust themselves to rapid turn of events. For all their domination, though, Croatia found it very hard to open Denmark up. Most of the opportunities they did enjoy came by way of Danish mistakes but from open play, they just weren’t precise enough with their final ball.
Denmark also had some opportunities but they scrappy. Cristian Eriksen, predictably, had their best opportunity when he tried a sneaky lob to the back post but said structure kept the ball out. With the scores even at half time, you got the impression that Denmark fancied that they could keep this Croatia side at bay and possibly ‘do a Russia’ later in the game.
However, it was Denmark who were arguably the better team for most of the second half. Yussuf Poulsen was a constant pain in the side of Croatia and created a number of decent opportunities from the flanks. Maybe it was the heat or maybe it was the fact that they had made such wholesale changes in their final group game but Croatia looked nothing like the team that terrorized Argentina, they weren’t even a pale imitation. Passes weren’t sticking, runs weren’t being made; at least none that were troubling Denmark to any degree. Croatia teams of the past have crumbled under the weight of the pressure but we all thought that this team were different. Going into extra-time, we were about to find out whether or not that was true.
Denmark started extra-time the better of the two teams and when out of possession, looked as if they had their opponents figured out so were content to let Croatia at it. Toward the end of the first 15 minutes, however, the game swung back in favour of Croatia with Modric once again taking control of affairs but the referee blew it up before they could make anything count.
The final 15 minutes after a marathon slog of football were understandably nervy. Those anxieties were made worse for Croatia when Denmark brought on Sisto and what he might lack in finesse he more than makes up for in speed; against tiring legs, that’s a nightmare made flesh. Speaking of nightmares, just minutes before the end of play, disaster struck for Denmark. Losing possession in the middle of the field, Modric picked the ball up and immediately fed it through to Rebic between Denmark’s two centre-backs. He rounded Schmeichel and was just about to pull the trigger when he was taken down from behind by Joergensen. The ref pointed to the spot and Modric stepped up. Schmeichel stood tall in the goal, staring Modric down. The wizard struck the ball to the keeper’s left but Schmeichel was already there – save! Unfortunately for Croatia, the ref didn’t spot (or chose not to spot) that Schmeichel was well off his line before the ball was even kicked. Accordingly, Schmeichel should have been carded and the penalty retaken but neither the ref nor VAR pulled it back. Croatia continued to press but it was not to be and the ref blew for full time. For the second time today, we were going to penalties.
Eriksen, Mr Dependable, stepped up first but his kick was saved. Luckily for him, so was Croatia’s. Each player scored until the fourth penalties whereupon both ‘keepers did the needful again. Honours even but then Denmarks fifth penalty was saved – all eyes were on Rakitic. If he scored, Croatia were through – up he stepped and sent Schmeichel the wrong way. It was a cruel end to Denmark’s adventure but them’s the breaks.
Denmark will be heartbroken. Out of both teams, they were the side that played closest to their potential and, the result aside, can at least find some solace, eventually, in the fact that they gave it their utmost. Croatia were far from their best but they are now through, and with the knowledge that they were fortunate to come out on the right side of the penalty lottery, nerves might not be as big an issue as they were in this game. It wasn’t high on quality, the excitement topped and tailed proceedings with a dearth of pizazz in the vast middle but the tension at the end was excruciating and we’ll take that all day.