Spain vs. Russia: 5 key matchups

KALININGRAD, RUSSIA - JUNE 25: Isco Alarcon of Spain celebrates after scoring his team`s first goal with team mates during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group B match between Spain and Morocco at Kaliningrad Stadium on June 25, 2018 in Kaliningrad, Russia. (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)
KALININGRAD, RUSSIA - JUNE 25: Isco Alarcon of Spain celebrates after scoring his team`s first goal with team mates during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group B match between Spain and Morocco at Kaliningrad Stadium on June 25, 2018 in Kaliningrad, Russia. (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images) /

Spain take on Russia, the host nation, in the World Cup round of 16. Here are five key matchups that could decide the result.

Russia may be feeding off the crowd as the host nation, but Spain are the superior team. Neither said brings much momentum into this round of 16 clash. La Roja limped into the knockout rounds with a draw against Morocco, while Russia are coming off a 3-0 defeat to Uruguay.

“Even though we had 10 men we wanted to play. That’s a plus. The minus is that we can’t allow ourselves to start like that,” said Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov after the loss. “From one side, it’s bad that we lost, from another, that kind of slap is useful sometimes.”

The game is a rematch of the Euro 2008 semifinals. Like at this World Cup, few expected the Russians to go far in the tournament. Ten years later, the sides meet again. This time, Russia have the advantage of playing before a home crowd, while Spain will want to put a strangely inconsistent group stage behind them.

Here are five key matchups to look for during Sunday’s showdown.

Denis Cheryshev vs. Spain’s defense

The Russians have Cheryshev, who leads the team in scoring with three goals, while Spain have a defense that didn’t always hold up during the first three group-stage matches.

The 27-year-old Cheryshev has demonstrated he can be deadly in the final third. The Villarreal striker has had 71 percent of his shots hit the target, among one of the highest percentages at this World Cup, and is averaging a goal every 59 minutes.

The Spanish defense conceded five goals in three games (more than any team in the group) — three in a pulsating 3-3 draw against Portugal and two this past Monday in a 2-2 draw with Morocco. They’ll need to get much better at the back or risk a Russian onslaught.

“We can improve things … Five goals in three matches isn’t the way forward,” Spain manager Fernando Hierro said following the Morocco game.

Diego Costa vs. Russia’s defense

On one side there’s Costa, the other the Russian defense. Who will have the better game remains to be seen.

Let’s start with Costa. The 29-year-old Atletico Madrid star has been one of the biggest positives for La Roja at this tournament. Unlike at the last World Cup in 2014, Costa seems to be a better fit in this Spain lineup. He came into the World Cup physically fit. He’s also not afraid to attack. His statistics from Brazil 2014 showed he was only in the opposition penalty box 16 percent of the time, compared to 23 percent at this World Cup.

Russia, meanwhile, have been solid defensively, outside of the loss to Uruguay, when they played most of the match with 10 men. Russia did a great job in their first two games, conceding just one goal, but the caliber of their opponents was several rungs below Spain.

Midfield vs. midfield

The Russian midfield has been the real story behind the team’s sudden success. It will face off against Spain’s midfield, probably the most technically gifted in the tournament.

The Russians have Aleksandr Golovin, who was rested for the recent Uruguay game, in midfield. The CSKA Moscow midfielder has delighted with his accurate passing and long-range shooting. He’s the lynchpin of Russia’s offense and can also track back to aid the defense. A complete player, the 22-year-old Golovin, who has a goal and two assists at this World Cup, is destined to have a great future.

Spain’s midfield will need to have a great game in order for the 2010 World Cup champions to win this match. Veterans Andres Iniesta, along with Thiago Alcantara and Sergio Busquets, will need to channel their club form in order to get the win.

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Home crowd vs. Spain’s starting lineup

Under any other circumstances, the Russians would be massive underdogs in this match. Under these circumstances, playing in front of their home crowd at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, they’re just regular-sized underdogs.

The patriotic fervor that has taken over Russia in the past two weeks may very well help them win this game. History has often been on the side of home teams at past World Cups. The fears of hooliganism on the eve of the World Cup never materialized during Russia matches. Instead, all we’ve seen is one big national party.

Spain’s team is full of world-class players, accustomed to playing in some hostile environments. Still, they’ve looked shaky at times this tournament, and a poor start to the match, coupled with the noise of a pro-Russian crowd, could have an impact.

Fernando Hierro vs. Stanislav Cherchesov

Every matchup is a tactical battle between managers and different playing styles and culture. Spain-Russia is no different.

Spain are coached by Fernando Hierro, who took over as head coach just days before the start of the competition after the sudden sacking of Julen Lopetegui. He was fired by the Spanish FA after taking the Real Madrid coaching job just before the start of the World Cup.

Spain play a 4-3-3, while Russia employ a 4-2-3-1. That means this should be a wide-open game with plenty of brilliant passing and balls on the wings. Nonetheless, Hierro is the one with the most to lose here, still trying his best to be his own man.

“Please don’t think whenever I have to make a decision I call Lopetegui to ask his opinion,” he said.