Russia's five stars shine brightly
Russia qualify for quarter-finals after beating Spain on penalties
It was the country’s first shootout at the World Cup
The Russians scored all their penalties and Akinfeev made two saves
By Igor Borunov with Russia
After executing their game plan to perfection, denying Spain in both normal and extra time, Russia entered unchartered waters earlier this afternoon at the Luzhniki Stadium. Although the Sbornaya had reached the FIFA World Cup™ quarter-finals four times in a row as the Soviet Union, from 1958 through to 1970, they had never previously got this far thanks to a penalty shoot-out.
Twice before, at the 1970 and 1986 editions, the team experienced extra time, but on both occasions they ended up losing inside 120 minutes – against Uruguay 1-0 and Belgium 4-3 respectively. Russia’s five stars in the shootout today have therefore written their names into the history books.
Fedor Smolov The Saratov-born striker was long thought of as a promising player early in his career. He later went through a period when he did not score a league goal in Russia for almost three years, before re-emerging as the leading goalscorer domestically and his country’s main centre-forward. This World Cup has been yet another new experience for Smolov: after losing his place in the starting line-up following the Opening Match, Smolov refused to become downcast, and made useful contributions off the bench in the next two games. He stepped forward to take the first penalty for Russia and found the target despite David De Gea getting a glove to it.
Sergei Ignashevich Sbornaya’s record appearance-maker continues to raise the bar in every game. Ignashevich should not have been at this World Cup, as he retired from the national team back in 2016, but he responded to the SOS call from Stanislav Cherchesov, who had just lost three defenders to injury. Sergei coolly sent the goalkeeper the wrong way and the ball into the corner. Ignashevich turns 39 on 14 July, and if Russia can negotiate just one more obstacle, he will celebrate his birthday at the World Cup, a prospect he has refused to even dream about.
Aleksandr Golovin Before the tournament, the 22-year-old from Siberia was widely heralded as Russia’s brightest young star, and it has since become clear that Golovin has truly lived up to his billing. The midfielder put in a fantastic performance against Saudi Arabia, scoring one and providing two assists, and was excellent against Egypt but missed the Uruguay game to avoid picking up an unnecessary yellow card. Back in the line-up against Spain, he was once again effective, even though Russia spent little time in attack. Fate smiled upon ‘Sasha’ during the shootout: his strike down the centre of the goal went right under De Gea’s body.
Denis Cheryshev It is symbolic that that the winning penalty, wrongfooting De Gea in goal, was scored by Denis Cheryshev. It is not so hard to imagine him playing in this game for Spain, a country where he grew up, became a footballer and continues to play today. That said, Denis only ever wanted to play for Russia. Before the tournament, he was considered a back-up member of the squad, but his superb appearance in coming off the bench in the Opening Match to score two goals, and his 60th-minute winner against Egypt, have made Cheryshev one of the best-loved players in the country.
Igor Akinfeev The photo above is a mesmerising one. Igor Akinfeev has won countless matches and trophies, but this moment is probably the biggest of his career so far. The best goalkeeper in the country, who deserves mentioning in the same breath as Lev Yashin, played a phenomenal match when it was needed the most. Spain had 25 shots on goal: Akinfeev let one in off a deflection from Sergei Ignashevich’s shin, but made nine saves in the game and two more in the penalty shootout. If he read Koke’s effort correctly, there was something miraculous about his save from Iago Aspas. It is worth remembering that a 17-year-old Akinfeev saved a penalty in his debut league game in Russia.