Ken Early: If Putin only knew football always gives you a chance

Last 16 clash proved that the golden era of Spanish football is well and truly over

Celebrations continued long into the night in Moscow as World Cup hosts Russia defied the odds by beating former world champions Spain 4-3 on penalties to seal a spot in the quarter finals. Video: Reuters


Vladimir Putin was meant to be at the Luzhniki to see Russia versus Spain, but when Fifa released the VIP guest-list it turned out that the ranking Russian official would be prime minister Dmitry Medvedev.

With victory against Spain appearing unlikely, it seemed the president had delegated the unpleasant task of smiling ruefully for the cameras as the curtain came down on Russia’s home World Cup.

The prime minister had been here before. Nine years ago, when he was president, Medvedev went to Slovenia to watch what everyone assumed would be Russia clinching qualification for the 2010 World Cup, only to become indelibly associated with one of Russia’s great sporting humiliations, as Slovenia beat them on away goals.

This time, after Igor Akinfeev made the decisive penalty save from Iago Aspas, the cameras cut to the ecstatic Medvedev, who thus became a star alongside Akinfeev, Golovin and the rest of the footage of Russian sporting heroism that will be replayed for decades.

The Luzhniki had become a kind of volcano of Russian joy, witnessing an eruption of national pride such as only a home World Cup win can deliver and on a scale which Russia may never before have experienced through sport. Hockey has given Russia some good days, but this time they knew the world was watching.

This was a complete transformation from the first half, which had been played out in scarcely any atmosphere at all. It sounded like 90 per cent of the crowd were attending their first ever football match.

The Russians cheered whenever one of their own players got the ball, yet often accepted marginal refereeing decisions without protest. The experience of going down to an early own goal from a set piece, then having to watch Spain monopolise possession in midfield without seeming to want to do much with it, must have seemed baffling and pointless for the Russian ingenues.

At that point staying away looked like another astute presidential decision. But if Putin followed this game rather than judo and hockey, he would have known that football always gives you a chance.

The unnerving quality of Spain’s domination of international football between 2008 and 2012 was that they seemed to give you no chance at all. It was so difficult to score against them – even to get the ball off them – that what they were doing seemed almost unfair.

Spain are not like that any more. Their progress through the group had been rickety, with five goals conceded and most of their goals coming from set pieces or old-fashioned centre-forward play by Diego Costa.

More decisive

Against Russia they had 75 per cent of possession, but seldom can there have been a more graphic illustration of what Arsene Wenger meant when he came up with the phrase “sterile domination”. The old Spain could not have had a greater share of the ball, but they would have been more decisive with it. Now Spain looked like they were trying to remember a language they used to know but hadn’t spoken for years.

The Russians played that game where you forget about the ball and focus on the space. They lined up in two tight lines of five and four at the edge of their own box, happy to let Spain have possession in front of them, or to show their attacks down the sides, knowing they would be reluctant to cross into a goalmouth area dominated by strapping defenders.

The ball circulated sluggishly between Ramos and Koke and Pique and Busquets, rolling slowly across the sticky pitch out to the full-backs and back into midfield.

If Spain were going to score they were going to have to find ways to infiltrate that central zone the Russians were guarding, where quick short combinations can spirit the ball through the gaps and get players in on goal. But for a long time it looked like they were not even trying to get in there. The ball went back and forth, back and forth and you began to wonder: what is Spain’s strategy? Are they trying to starve the Russians out?

The missing ingredient was simple: intensity. The difference between Spain now, and Spain when they used to win things, is that back then they also used to outwork the opponent. They were better technically, but they were also sharper mentally and physically. Like Germany at this World Cup, they have allowed themselves to forget that it is difficult to impose any style on opponents if you are not also prepared to run.

That was something Russia were never going to forget.

The World Cup has reached the point where stakes get high and the reserves of energy run low. The Saturday second-round matches were remarkable for the low tempo at which they were played out. Argentina ran just 96km against France, who themselves only covered 97km. Even N’Golo Kante did not break the 10km barrier.

Uruguay-Portugal was a little more active, with the teams posting 105km and 106km respectively, but for context an average Premier League team runs 111km per game.

Russia had averaged 13kms per game more than Spain in the matches when they hadn’t had any first-half red cards. This time their gameplan necessarily involved less running as they seldom ventured from their own half, but once again the dynamic midfield pair of Golovin and Zobnin, tasked with supporting the target man and harass the Spanish players in possession, topped the running charts. When Golovin struck their last penalty, the trudge from the half way line to the penalty spot took him past 16 kilometres for the game, which was at least 1.2km more than anyone else.

Another betrayal

Russia’s coach Stanislav Cherchesov sounded confident that even after the huge effort they made here, his players can continue to give more.

“Tomorrow there will be a medical check-up and of course we are looking at every footballer individually, and we will see who is fit,” he said.

“Maybe some need more time to rest than others. Our medics are working well and they should understand what the physiological condition of the players is. Physiology comes first here, and I hope that our opponent-to-be tonight plays 120 minutes just to be equal.”

Hierro’s decision to drop Iniesta against Russia was criticised by some Spanish media as another betrayal, another milestone on Spain’s road away from their winning style.

And yet the facts are that Iniesta did come on, played for nearly an hour, and missed the best two chances Spain created. Maybe the Iniesta of ten years ago could have been decisive, but not the Iniesta who recently left Barcelona declaring that he was “empty, with nothing left to give”.

Even Iniesta is not above physiology.

Rather than talk of Spain having abandoned a style, it seems more accurate to say they have gone back to being a normal team, just another collection of very good players, as they were in the days when a Spanish team including Hierro could be outplayed by Ireland at the World Cup. It was the imperial interlude that was out of character.

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