Igor Akinfeev became a national hero overnight as the Russian shot-stopper saved two spot-kicks in a nail-biting penalty shootout against Spain, with the hosts edging the 2010 winners 5-4 to reach the quarter-finals of the 2018 FIFA World Cup on Sunday night.
After France’s sensational victory over Argentina and Uruguay’s thrilling defeat of Portugal on Saturday, most fans were expecting the following day to be a rather routine one, but the encounter at the Luzhniki Stadium was anything but.
Sergio Ramos forced an own goal from his opposite number Sergei Ignashevich to get La Roja up and running in the 11th minute, but Fernando Hierro’s men struggled to create clear-cut chances from theN on.
The possession battle was very much one way, but Russia were holding firm and making it difficult for Diego Costa, Sergio Asensio and co to extend their lead.
And as half-time neared, disaster struck for the Spaniards.
Gerard Pique’s outstretched arm clearly came in contact with the ball inside the box and even as the Barcelona man protested, match referee Bjorn Kuipers awarded the hosts a penalty.
Artem Dzyuba stepped up and made an entire nation believe that something special was on the cards as he cooly sent David de Gea the wrong way.
The second-half saw Spain hog the ball, as is their wont, but despite the introductions of Andres Iniesta, Iago Aspas and Dani Carvajal, they struggled to truly test Akinfeev.
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Russia were holding firm and as extra-time began, it truly was 50-50.
However, 30 added minutes couldn’t separate the sides and the first penalty shootout of the tournament was set to commence.
Ramos won the toss and chose to shoot first, a smart choice, and while Iniesta and Pique converted their attempts, Koke’s tame attempt was saved by Akinfeev.
The pressure was mounting on the hosts to maintain their lead but Ignashevich and Aleksandr Golovin were ice-cool from the spot.
De Gea, so often the saviour for club Manchester United, had been sub-par in Russia and he went the wrong way for every single penalty, save the first one.
Spain couldn’t recover and when Aspas’s shot was saved by Akinfeev’s legs, the stadium erupted in delight even as the world struggled to understand what had unfolded.
Next up in the quarters are either Croatia or Denmark, but with the favourites crumbling like they are, who’s to say how far Russia will go on their home turf.