A host team exceeding expectation is waiting at Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday for the 2010 World Cup champion, which has been under fire in Spain.
Dutch coaching great Guus Hiddink guided Russia to the European Championship semifinals 10 years ago on a run stopped by a Spanish squad at the start of their title-winning era.
Hiddink visited the Russian squad for a pep talk at training translated – loosely and with added humor – by current coach Stanislas Cherchesov.
”You’re doing so far very well, unexpected for me, a little bit unexpected to be honest,” Hiddink told the group, which includes some players he worked with a decade ago.
Russia kicked off the World Cup as the lowest-ranked team, but used momentum from an opening 5-0 rout of Saudi Arabia to beat Egypt 3-1. A 3-0 loss against Uruguay was a reality check, and creative midfielder Alan Dzagoev is still missing after injuring a hamstring early in the first game.
Spain has settled after some pre-tournament turmoil when Julen Lopetegui was fired because he took the vacant Real Madrid job without information the national federation. An opening 3-3 thriller against Portugal was followed by a tight 1-0 win over Iran. A 2-2 draw with Morocco needed a late equalizer confirmed by video review.
But advancing to the knockout rounds as the unbeaten winner of Group B under interim coach Fernando Hierro has not won back full support back home.
”I think we have received more than enough criticism,” defender Dani Carvajal said. ”We are being questioned so much in our own country that it can’t be good for us. But we try to be above that, we try to be close as a group, because that’s what we have left.”
Five goals conceded is already three more than in the 2010 title run, and some can be traced to individual mistakes by veterans Andres Iniesta and Sergio Ramos, and goalkeeper David De Gea.
”The goals we have conceded have been due to our own mistakes, not due to the opponent’s good performance,” Carvajal said. ”We’ve not been beaten in two years, we’re first in the group, not many national teams can say that.”
Ten years ago in Vienna, Spain beat Russia 3-0 in a Euro 2008 semifinal.
Three players on each side who started that game should retain their places in the lineup this weekend.
Russia’s goalkeeper captain Igor Akinfeev, 38-year-old defender Sergei Ignashevich, and wing-back Yuri Zhirkov renew rivalry against Sergio Ramos, now captaining Spain, Andres Iniesta and David Silva, who scored the third goal that day.
Backup goalkeepers Vladimir Gabulov and Pepe Reina were also on the bench at Euro 2008.
LAST YEAR’S GAME
The teams also played last November, in a friendly in St. Petersburg that ended 3-3.
Ramos scored twice from the penalty spot as Spain wasted leads of 2-0 and 3-2.
Russia needed midfielder Denis Glushakov to go in goal for the final minutes after goalkeeper Andrei Lunyov had been concussed in a challenge, and all its substitutes had been used.
Spain and Russia are on a clear travel path to the final in the bottom half of the knockout bracket.
The winner at Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday will go to a quarterfinal in Sochi. A win there would mean a return to Luzhniki for a semifinal.
It’s the least amount of upheaval any team in the round of 16 can have if it wants to win the title.
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