While the fans will evidently be on Russia’s side at the Luzhniki Stadium Sunday afternoon , Spain will go into the match as favourites. Yet, as Portugal, IR Iran and Morocco showed, Fernando Hierro’s team can be vulnerable.
The Sbornaya are fully aware they must capitalise on their opponents’ shortcomings if they are to pull off the unthinkable.
“We know how Spain play,” Russia head coach Stanislav Cherchesov told FIFA TV. “It’s hard to counter, but we’re going to try. We played against Julen Lopetegui’s team and we are seeing changes under Hierro. I won’t go into specifics, but the team is playing a little differently.”
Exploit defensive weaknesses
Sergei Ignashevich, Russia’s main man in defence, recently touched upon some potential problem areas in the Spanish defence: “Their defenders play a high line, which leaves space in behind and opens the door for the opposition to create chances on the counter. Morocco and Iran took advantage of this and so should we.”
Spain have been unusually porous at the back recently, a problem that first arose in the friendly against Russia in November, when they let in three for the first time since Brazil 2014. Their only clean sheets this year have come against Tunisia and Iran.
Full-backs Jordi Alba and Dani Carvajal often push forward but do not always track back to their positions, while Sergio Busquets cannot be expected to cover every gap.
There are also question marks over David de Gea, one of the best goalkeepers in the world, who has conceded five goals from only six shots on target at Russia 2018.
With Aleksandr Golovin returning to the line-up, Russia should be back at full strength. They will need to press intelligently, however, and choose their moments, as Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique are more than capable of slicing a team in half with a single pass out of defence.
Yet, as Morocco showed, the central defensive duo can be caught off-guard too.
In their own half of the pitch, the hosts cannot afford to let Isco out of sight, nor give Andres Iniesta the freedom to roam. They also need to keep a tight leash on Diego Costa.
The Sbornaya kept a close watch on Mohamed Salah in the group match against Egypt, though he did get on the scoresheet from the spot. They will have to be just as vigilant with Costa, who is no less dangerous.
Make the most of set pieces
Dead-ball situations have been key to success at Russia 2018 so far, as the hosts found to their cost against Uruguay.
Having underperformed in this area so far, it seems unlikely the eastern Europeans will excel from set pieces against Spain, although there is a potential threat in Cherchesov’s line-up.
Morocco’s Youssef En-Nesyri scored a wonderful header from a corner against Spain, and Artem Dzyuba, Russia’s towering striker, has the aerial ability to worry them as well.
That said, the Spanish pose a dead-ball threat of their own, with Iago Aspas flicking home from a clever corner routine to rescue a point for La Roja against the north Africans. Ignashevich and Co cannot afford to switch off for a second.
Take their chances
The outcome will hinge on taking chances when they arise. Spain are unlikely to repeat the lapse in concentration that led to Morocco’s first goal too often, which means Russia must seize whatever opportunities come their way.
The Moroccans created a similar chance later in the game, only for Khalid Boutaib to shoot straight at De Gea.
Dzyuba summed up Russia’s mindset ahead of the game: “We understand what we need to do – show patience and look for chances.
We have to take every opportunity, and we can’t afford for any player to be off their game. We all have to give it everything we have.
“We have a plan but I don’t want to reveal it,” he concluded. “Spain control possession superbly, constantly passing to each other and changing positions. We need to find a way to counter this. We have to be solid tactically.”