Spain joined Argentina and Portugal on a growing list of casualties in the Round of 16 as their bid to regain their title of World Champions came to a sorry end. Russia held their own, first for 120 minutes and then from the penalty spot to do the unthinkable. They live to fight another day as they sealed a quarter-final berth amidst scenes of jubilation at the Luzhniki Stadium.

The line-ups for both sides raised a few eyebrows. Spain’s eleven was headlined by the omission of Andres Iniesta, benched at a tournament match for his country for the first time since the game against Honduras way back in the 2010 finals. Fernando Hierro also took out Carvajal and Thiago, calling upon the services of Real Madrid’s Nacho and Asensio instead. The big name missing from Russia’s team sheet was 3-goal winger Denis Cheryshev, who was sacrificed to accommodate the shift to a 3-4-3.

Proceedings began predictably as Spain played keep-ball until Yuri Zhirkov’s foul on Nacho yielded a free-kick on the right-hand side. Asensio’s teasing ball was eventually bundled over by Russian centre-half Sergei Ignashevich into his own net to hand the 2010 champions a dream start.

The hosts were not deterred by this setback and stuck to their guns, allowing Spain to progress beyond a point before cutting off all passing lanes. Spain’s sideways passing and lack of penetration failed to yield a credible effort to bother Igor Akinfeev between the sticks.

When they did have the ball, the Russians opted for route one football, launching it towards their 6’3″ striker Artem Dzyuba. On the 35th minute mark, he finally got the better of Ramos, bullying him off the ball which fell Aleksandr Golovin’s way. The exciting youngster’s shot was a fair bit off but was greeted by a roar of approval from the Moscow faithful. Buoyed by this they began pushing forward as Right-Back Mário Fernandes won a corner, the result of which was a bizarre handball in the area by Gerard Piqué. Dzyuba stepped up and dispatched his spot-kick emphatically. Just like that, Russia were back level on the cusp of half-time.

Diego Costa, thoroughly starved of service throughout a frustrating first 45, had a couple of half chances to his name before the whistle but they came to nothing as a mistake apiece meant the sides were level at 1-1.

The second half continued in the same vein, with Russia sitting even deeper if that was possible. Both managers introduced fresh faces in a slew of substitutions that, coupled with a series of fouls, meant that the second half was even more stop-start than the first. One of those substitutions was that of Iniesta as Hierro desperately tried to pick the lock that was the Russian defence. Although Iniesta did manage to sting Akiinfeev’s palms with a volley, the old, experienced rearguard did not yield as the game moved on to extra time for the first time at these finals.

Try as they would, La Roja’s efforts didn’t come to fruition. Running themselves into corners and without the aerial presence of Costa on the pitch to bother the Russian defence, they looked completely bereft of ideas. A late shout for a penalty was also denied after Pqué was seemingly pulled to the ground by Ignashevich, but VAR deemed nothing doing. This one was going to go the distance.

Fernando Hierro did a fine job of rousing his troops before the shootout began, presumably reminding them of the heartbreak he suffered in 2002. Over in the Russian camp, skipper Akinfeev isolated himself as he said a little prayer before walking up to his goal, steely-eyed.

The first two penalties were duly converted by both sides as Koke stepped up. His weak effort was easily dealt with by Akinfeev as Russia drew first blood. Golovin then came up to the spot and his effort snuck under de Gea to put them further on the brink. Two converted kicks later Spain needed Iago Aspas, the man who got them to this tie with his late equaliser in their last game, to convert his penalty to stay alive. It just wasn’t to be. The last remnants of the golden generation sunk to their knees as the stadium exploded in delight amongst the cascading rain in the capital as the home side’s warriors rejoiced their heroic efforts.

For Spain, it’s back to the drawing board again following yet another early exit. The turbulent camp never really recovered from Julen Lopetegui’s sacking on the eve of the tournament and the uninspiring showings that have followed are a damning reflection of the sorry state of affairs. Things are yet to change since their last success at the 2012 European Championships, both on and off the pitch. Like Germany, they remain in dire need of an overhaul in the wake of this latest failure.

Coming into the tournament as the lowest ranked side, this was beyond Russia’s wildest dreams. They now await the winner of Croatia versus Denmark and will no doubt be willing to put it all on the line as they did today with a potential semi-final berth on the line. The Golden Eagles continue to fly high under their own sky.

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