Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov believes the World Cup hosts’ shock victory over title contenders Spain on penalites following a 1-1 draw in the last 16 on Sunday “is only the beginning”.
Captain Igor Akinfeev saved two penalties as Russia triumphed 4-3 in a dramatic shootout in Moscow to reach a first quarter-final since the Soviet era, in 1970.
“I’m not the man of the match, the man of the match is our team and our fans,” said Akinfeev, after each converted penalty, and his saves from Koke and Iago Aspas, were greeted with a deafening roar from a crowd of 78,011 at the Luzhniki Stadium.
Russia were largely expected to just make up the numbers at their own tournament after entering with a seven-match winless run and ranked the lowest of the 32 teams.
Cherchesov has masterminded a remarkable upturn in fortunes, with back-to-back wins over Saudi Arabia and Egypt to launch their campaign sparking a wave of national euphoria.
They rode that support, and occasionally their luck, to recover from falling behind to a 12th-minute own goal from Sergei Ignashevich.
Artem Dzyuba equalised with a penalty shortly before half-time after Spain defender Gerard Pique was punished for a handball.
Russia’s defence then held firm as Spain dominated possession before the heroics of Akinfeev triggered wild celebrations in the rain.
However, Cherchesov refused to get carried away and spoke like a man on a mission after his side booked a quarter-final clash with Croatia or Denmark.
“I believe that it’s only the beginning so I have to save my emotions for the future,” said Cherchesov, who at times gestured towards the crowd to lift the noise levels.
“Today we found the right place at the right time and we achieved the maximum we could.”
“Now it’s over and I’m thinking only about the next game. These are very simple, not very sophisticated emotions,” he added.
“It wasn’t open football on our part. They are better than us in many ways so I don’t believe we should risk going forward, and I think we chose the correct tactic.”
– ‘Can’t point fingers’ –
Spain joined fellow heavyweights Germany and Argentina in making a premature exit, raising questions as to the wisdom of sacking Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the competition.
Lopetegui was axed by the Spanish federation with the team already in Russia after agreeing a deal to become the Real Madrid coach next season.
Spain came to the finals unbeaten in 20 matches since Lopetegui took over following Euro 2016, with the 2010 world champions winning just once in four games with Hierro at the helm.
“I accept the responsibility, I am the head coach. If anyone needs to shoulder this responsibility it’s me,” said the former Real Madrid captain.
“I have nothing to hold against anybody. I put my reputation out there because that’s what my job required.”
Hierro’s choice was risky given his lack of coaching experience — just one season in charge of second division Oviedo — but he was reluctant to reflect on Spain’s chaotic start to the tournament.
“We can’t start finger-pointing at anyone and laying any blame here,” he said.
“We need to be realistic. The situation was what it was and we need to call a spade a spade. It’s completely pointless to analyse the past. We made the decision we made.”
“We had opportunities to win this match but we ended up in a penalty shootout which is basically a lottery, and we weren’t lucky,” he added.
The defeat also marked the end a of glittering international career for Andres Iniesta, who was brought on midway through the second half for his 131st and final Spain appearance.