FIFA World Cup 2018: Russia beaten by Croatia in quarters but hosts exit tournament with their heads held high

On Saturday night, Russia exited the 2018 World Cup. For them, it was the first time the football World Cup had come home, but asking it to stay at home was a big stretch. They tried, however.

Having entered this World Cup as the worst of the 32 participating teams, not a lot was expected of Russia. There was certainly the factor of home advantage to count on and mitigate any shortcomings, but Russia were far from a competent World Cup team when the 2018 edition kicked off in mid-June. That, though, was long consigned to history when the hosts were just a matter of inches from sealing their place in the World Cup semi-finals for the first time ever.

On Saturday, Croatia – of the Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic ‘golden generation’ vintage – had 120 minutes to break Russia but couldn’t. Last week, Spain – the 2010 champions – suffered a similar fate. If bumping into Russia was considered a cakewalk, Stanislav Cherchesov’s men tried their best to prove it otherwise. They nearly had their second big scalp in Croatia, but a quarter-final finish was all they could muster, somewhat deserved but entirely out of expected lines.

 FIFA World Cup 2018: Russia beaten by Croatia in quarters but hosts exit tournament with their heads held high

Russia players during the penalty shootout against Croatia in the quarter-final. Reuters

To say the Russians exited the World Cup with their heads held high would be an understatement; they turned out to be wonderful ambassadors of the sport in a country troubled by a widespread doping malaise stretching back years and nearly wrote a fairytale despite that stigma.

Russia scored a hatful of goals, conceded only once from open play, recorded the biggest win of the tournament, and played a brave and intense game with their chock-full of limited footballers – not too bad for a team that, in June, FIFA ranked below Panama, Peru, Saudi Arabia and the other 28 teams.

It only took the cruel fate of a penalty shootout to knock Russia out of this World Cup, but the tournament overall proved to be a significant high in the nation’s footballing history. Right from the opening day when they cleaned up Saudi Arabia 5-0, the Russians only served to enhance their mystique with each passing game.

Their route into the knockouts was favourable no doubt, but their subsequent choking, tiring and emotional dismantling of Spain in the Round of 16 wrote a new blueprint to counter the Iberian wizards of passing. Russia at the 2018 World Cup weren’t just about the hosts turning up to loud noises and packing it all in when the going got tough; they left an indelible mark on the tournament amid relative adversity, at a time when expectations were unsurprisingly low.

Cherchesov’s team adopted an unashamedly direct approach, often lumping long balls to big target man Artem Dzyuba and midfield runners feeding off the second balls. But there was a distinctive bravery about their approach, not fully ceding advantage to their opponents and always having the presence in higher areas to cause trouble. Even against Croatia, who monopolised possession and dominated territory, Russia were a considerable goal threat throughout the 120 minutes and managed to score twice. While not many teams would be able to match their physical prowess, Russia’s application and approach to games was positive more often than not, a cue to take for football’s lesser lights against fancied opponents.

Player of the tournament: Denis Cheryshev

While there were other candidates who played more minutes and arguably better than the Villarreal man, Cheryshev provided the big moments that will mark Russia’s first home World Cup in years to come. The former Real Madrid man wasn’t even a key player when the World Cup started but grabbed his unlikely chance with both hands. He has now etched his name and cult status in Russian footballing history with four goals, two of which certainly deserve to be in the reckoning for Goal of the Tournament.

Find of the tournament: Roman Zobnin

A relative unknown to the wider world when the World Cup started, the 24-year-old ended up being one of Russia’s most consistent players in the tournament. Zobnin played every minute of the hosts’ World Cup campaign and was their driving force from midfield, often showing relentless energy and drive. The Spartak Moscow man is definitely one to watch post this World Cup.

Best goal: Cheryshev vs Croatia, Quarter-finals

Cheryshev’s curling effort past a stranded, watching Danijel Subasic in the quarter-final was a sight to behold. Having gained possession after winning a second ball, the 27-year-old drove straight at the Croatia backline and played a one-two with Dzyuba. He then rode Modric’s challenge to apply the finishing touch from all of 25 yards – a special goal for a special occasion.

Biggest disappointment: Fyodor Smolov

Smolov struggled for playing time in the presence of Dzyuba and had little impact on proceedings in his limited time on the pitch. The 28-year-old had only two attempts in his 219 minutes at a World Cup where he was supposed to carry the hopes of an entire nation. It can be argued that Smolov didn’t fit into Cherchesov’s best XI but Russia were left with a feeling of what could’ve been as they rue the #10’s minimal contribution.

Big transfer awaits: Mario Fernandes

The Brazil-born right-back was a bundle of energy and invention, providing a creative outlet from out wide throughout the tournament. It was Fernandes who levelled things up against Croatia in extra-time but his subsequent penalty miss in the shootout rendered it irrelevant. However, the 27-year-old showed enough verve in his first World Cup and could be the subject of a big transfer to an elite European league, having been at CSKA Moscow since 2012.

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Updated Date: Jul 08, 2018 16:14:12 IST