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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 October 2018

Russia rumble on at World Cup as Akinfeev the hero in penalty shoot-out win over Spain

Host nation through to the quarter-finals after triumph in Moscow

Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev celebrates with his teammates after his penalty saves put Russia into the quarter-finals of the competition. Mahmoud Khaled / EPA
Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev celebrates with his teammates after his penalty saves put Russia into the quarter-finals of the competition. Mahmoud Khaled / EPA

Igor Akinfeev’s outstretched leg levered the ball over the bar and the Luzhniki had lift-off. Presumably all of Russia, too.

The hosts, ridiculed and written off even before a ball had been kicked this month, are World Cup quarter-finalists, standing firm against 2010 world champions Spain to prevail on penalties.

Seemingly against all expectations, Russia rumble on at the World Cup.

They resisted their lofty rivals in Moscow, rebounding from Sergei Ignashevich’s 12-minute own goal and responding through Artem Dzyuba’s spot-kick not long before half-time.

Then, having defended doggedly, restricting Spain to scant reward for their total domination of the ball, Russia resolved to survive the penalty shoot-out.

Needing to score to keep his side’s hopes alive, Iago Aspas sent his effort down the middle,Akinfeev’s left foot sent it anywhere but the goal and the 78,000 inside the stadium were sent wild in celebration.

The roar incredible, the result just as much.

Russia, the tournament’s lowest-ranked side, now sit among its eight best at present, two matches from what always felt an impossible final, three from the title itself. What a night to be a Muscovite.

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“I don’t believe I’m man of the match,” said Akinfeev, a Moscow native, one of the evening’s many heroes and his country’s captain.

“Man of the match is our team and our fans.”

You would be hard pressed in this sprawling city of 12 million to find anyone who disagreed.

Built on the collective, and embroidered by the talents of Aleksandr Golovin, Denis Cheryshev and Mario Fernandes, Stanislav Cherchesov’s side deserved the victory, if not for their play but for their sheer commitment to the cause on the field.

Even when Ignashevich deflected Marco Asensio’s 12-minute free-kick, under a challenge from Sergio Ramos and as Spain settled into their groove, Russia did not panic. They simply kept tight to their game plan.

They were rewarded just before half-time as they got themselves back on level terms.

Gerard Pique was judged to have handled the ball as he jumped to contest a corner, and Dzyuba held his nerve from the penalty spot.

It was his third goal of the tournament. Standing on the touchline, Cherchesov could not even bring himself to watch.

Then Russia held strong. Akinfeev repelled Andres Iniesta – match-winner in the 2010 final, he was a controversial substitute – and Aspas in quick succession, Spain’s 809 passes in 94 minutes of normal time rendered almost redundant as they could not find a way through.

Extra-time came and went, other than Russia’s Herculean effort and Akinfeev’s fine save from Rodrigo and Pique’s last-gasp spot-kick claim. And so penalties would come into play as the way of finding a winner.

Iniesta and Pique scored for Spain; Fedor Smolov and Ignashevich for Russia. But Akinfeev thwarted Koke; Golovin, Ramos and Cheryshev converted, and Aspas failed to match them. Russia had slain Spain.

“We are having a fantastic World Cup,” said Akinfeev, although he hardly needed to tell anyone.

“Not just our fans, but the fans of other countries got a sense of this atmosphere and understood that Russians really know how to play football and want to play football.”

Now, Russia will want to rest up, recover both physically and mentally after such an emotional evening of drama.

The quarter-final, and that chance to extend an already fairy-tale foray, takes place in Sochi in six days’ time.

“You have to rest more when you play for 120 minutes rather than 90 minutes,” said Cherchesov, who confirmed Yuri Zhirkov could be out for the remainder of the tournament after the left-back went off injured.

“But our medics are working well. Physiology comes first here and I hope our [quarter-final] opponents will play 120 minutes too.”

No doubt, though, it will take a while to come down from this.

“Emotions are simple,” Cherchesov countered. “I’m thinking only about the next game. That’s how it is.”