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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

Surprise package Russia do Cherchesov proud in World Cup defeat

The host nation may be out of the competition at the hands of Croatia but they surpassed expectations on their run to the quarter-finals

A penny for the thoughts of Fabio Capello or indeed for Leonid Slutsky's as these two respected coaches contemplate from afar the end of the Russian fairytale at the 2018 World Cup.

They were both, at various times, supposed to be in charge of making the host nation’s team fit for purpose at the landmark event for the country.

As it happened, neither got anywhere their target, both stepping down as Russia’s manager after they failed to drag an ordinary Russia squad beyond the group stage of first, the 2014 World Cup, where Capello was flying his team home from Brazil after three games, and then Euro 2016 in France, where Slutsky’s European championship campaign ended similarly early.

Put bluntly, managing Russia seemed the impossible job a month ago. It looked as if, under the guidance of a grouchy, third-choice coach Stanislav Cherchesov, they were heading for embarrassment and very possibly for humiliation when they kicked off their own tournament.

The ride turned out to be unexpectedly exhilarating, at least if you were a patriotic supporter, tens of thousands of who arrived at the Black Sea resort of Adler on Saturday with a mixture of hope and trepidation.

If you watched as a neutral, some phases of the adventure were dull to watch, but there has been much to admire in the rugged resistance Cherchesov cultivated.

When Russia finally bowed out, shortly before midnight local time with defeat on penalties against Croatia in their quarter-final, they were departing the festival a good five hours of playing time later than many had forecast.

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They also left the best-looking memento of their last night, Denys Cheryshev’s wonderful first-half goal, struck beautifully from 25-yards after a slick exchange of passes with Artem Dzyuba.

Here are two players who have thrived in the heady atmosphere of a stirring World Cup, one that should refresh all of Russian football. Dzyuba is the man-mountain who revealed there is more to his game than just heavyweight bumping and bruising. He has some cool nerves and some nous, too.

Cheryshev, the Russian who grew up in Spain and has had low-key career in Spanish club football, has started four matches and finished with four World Cup goals.

He will remember forever that he gave his nation hope on the penultimate weekend of Russia’s World Cup and did so with stylish piece of skill and a wonderful finish.

Perhaps Russia might have benefited from having Cheryshev available when a long, sapping evening ended in a penalty shoot-out. He had been substituted long before.

Two of their spot-kicks were poor, Fedor Smolov striking the first weakly, and allowing Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subasic to alter his leap and save. A devastated Mario Fernandes blazed his spot-kick off target completely, as if in panic.

Wallchart

That was a sad end to the evening for Fernandes, the Brazil-born full-back who left his native land seven years ago with personal problems, seeking a fresh start in Russia.

He found it, Russia adopted him, made him their citizen. And his header late in extra-time carried Russia’s fairytale further than seemed credible, an equaliser for 2-2, and into a second successive penalty shoot-out.

Alas, this one did not go the way the spot-kicks against Spain at the last-16 stage had.

The Russians can look back on beating Spain as a real feather in their caps. They also scored 11 goals in their five games and gave the tournament a verve and impetus that has been maintained by others with their emphatic, five-goal opener against a bewildered Saudi Arabia.

Cherchesov may have relied a little too instinctively on cagey, ten-behind-the-ball tactics once Spain and Croatia’s excellent passers were the hurdles to cross in the knockouts but in adversity, there was a spirit to admire in a Russia of many veterans - Sergei Ignashevich turns 39 next weekend - and many men who bore some very unflattering assessments of how ordinary they were when they began their adventure.

They proved almost all of us wrong.