GAMES 51 & 52

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Russia 1 – 1 Spain
           3 – 4 (on penalties)

England have long been defined as a team who choke when it comes to penalties. They have form, to be fair, but like the kid at school who once sharted in double physics, it’s just one part of a much wider story. It is however, a part that can come to define someone for years. Then, one day, the classroom is alive with talk… There was a party at the weekend at Jemma Lewis’ cousin’s house and David Patterson wanked off her dog! Now it is someone else’s turn to be defined by a single, horrible moment.

And that’s how I shall always see Spain’s penalty shoot-out – a teenager drunkenly giving a handjob to a dog – and, in doing so, taking up the mantel of penalty chokers par excellence. It’s actually the third (out of four) World Cup penalty shoot outs they’ve lost (the others being Belgium in 1986 and South Korea in 2012), so they’ve got form as well. Koke’s pen was poor, the save on Iago Aspas’ effort looked freakish, but the question has to be, “How on EARTH did it ever get to this stage in the first place?”

Spain are an objectively better team – you only have to look at the game statistics to see the gulf and while I don’t want to just repeat stuff you can find elsewhere, it is worth bearing in mind the following… Russia enjoyed just 27% possession and had three shots (all off target) to Spain’s 25 (15 on-, 10 off-target). In fact the only meaningful area in which they led this game was fouls, picking up 17 to Spain’s four.

Spain paid a heavy price for not finding a way to convert their fluid passing game into a win. Costa seemed absent for long periods of the game and Russia played like a team who knew penalties were their best route. Can’t blame them for that – it’s not pretty to watch, but you play to your strengths, right? Perhaps Spain were too complacent. Perhaps they should have picked up the pace earlier, before a seed of panic had been sown, before the possibility of spot kicks deciding the biggest World Cup upset so far had become an approaching reality. Perhaps if Pique had kept his arm down, perhaps if possession had been accompanied by more ideas, perhaps if Koke had hit the sort of penalty he’s capable of… Perhaps.

But you know what? Russia won it. That should be the headline. The lowest-ranked team in the tournament confounded expectations – the media’s and those of their own fans – to end up at the quarter-finals. It’s a fairy tale. Not a particularly magical one to watch, but a fairy tale nonetheless.



Croatia 1 – 1 Denmark
             3 – 2 (on penalties)

From one of the worst games to watch as a neutral, to another of the worst games to watch as a neutral. After the spectacle of the previous day’s play, it’s almost like these World Cup ties are being grouped by theme. Today was dull, ditchwater drab – the penalty shoot-outs by far the best bit. I’d have rather done my tax return for 120 minutes and turned on at the end.

I know there are many who will disagree with me, but I failed to see the drama in the Modric/Eriksen battle. One of them played really well (Modric), one was largely subdued, both missed a penalty. Undoubtedly, the first half was more exciting with Modric supplying some great passes and his teammates keeping up a lively pace, but that tailed off considerably as the match wore on. Whether fatigue, playing safe for fear of conceding or just an off night, it was not what anyone was expecting from one of the strongest teams in the group stages.

The penalty looked horrifically cynical at first, Ante Rebic through on goal brought down by Mathias Jørgensen with Kasper Schmeichel caught in no man’s land. On second viewing, it was right that Jørgensen stayed on the pitch – it was a genuine, if risky, attempt to get the ball, but certainly less risky than doing nothing. Modric stepped up and didn’t have the look of a man bathed in the glow of confidence, he looked like a man drenched in the sweat of fear. It was both a poor penalty and a good save, and there were loads more of those to come as the clock ticked down to the now seemingly inevitable conclusion. Penalty shootout.

Modric made amends, Eriksen made a mess, shooting straight at Danijel Subasic. Sadly, this was to set the tone for the Danes and, while Schmeichel made two more good saves, Subasic was able to do enough to allow Rakitic the opportunity to win it.

So, Russia face Croatia. Croatia will, of course, fancy their chances. In a World Cup like this, however, you’d imagine that Russia will too.