In Russia, another day comes and goes, but the stakes, the drama and the excitement just get higher and higher.
Day Sixteen saw two incredible knockout games, whereas Day Seventeen painted a very different story.
This day showed a different side to the beautiful game, as this day’s particular artist had a different penchant to that of fast, free-flowing attacking football. Instead, he had a taste for tension.
Three glorious goalkeepers, two suspenseful shootouts and one giant’s goodbyes.
Day Seventeen was very much from Russia with love.
Moscow madness as sorry Spain dumped out by Russia in shootout
Hosts Russia stunned football fans across the globe by reaching their first World Cup quarter final in almost 50 years with a hard-fought penalty shoot-out win against 2010 champions Spain.
Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev was the hero, saving two Spanish spot-kicks in his home city of Moscow, on an afternoon where Fernando Hierro’s side simply could not break the spirit of the rallying Russian’s in their home tournament.
Guy Mowbray in BBC commentary joked with the line “from the Politburo to the proletariat” to illustrate the volume of the Russian population watching this one. He probably wasn’t wrong. The support could be felt in the Luzhniki Stadium as thousands of Russian fans passionately sang their anthem pre-match.
Those same fans could be heard every time their side progressed over the halfway line, which was rare in the early stages, as in typical fashion, Spain dominated the possession.
That loud support was silenced not long into the first half however, as Spain took the lead through a Sergei Ignashevich own goal.
Yuri Zhirkov foolishly fouled Nacho, who had his back to goal on the right of the box. Marco Asensio, who started ahead of Andres Iniesta, lofted the ball to the back post in aim of Sergio Ramos.
Ignashevich was so focused on Ramos he forgot about the ball, and inadvertently turned the ball into his own goal. It may well have been a penalty for a foul on the Spaniard had the ball not ended up in the net.
That was the tenth own goal at this World Cup, which extends the record of own goals at a tournament – the previous being just six.
After the first goal, Russia did not change their shape, as they continued to sit with men behind the ball hoping for something to happen on the counter charge. That is exactly what happened just after the half hour mark when Aleksandr Golovin’s finessed effort narrowly missed the target.
And then minutes later, Russia were level.
Gerard Pique conceded a penalty for a sloppy handball in the box. Artem Dyzuba stepped up and slotted home his third of the tournament, past De Gea, who conceded his sixth goal with the seventh shot on target against him.
Russia avoided a couple of late scares in the half at the hands of Diego Costa and headed into half-time level, much to the delight of their supporters.
The second half was one of little talking points, with Spain controlling the game throughout but failing to make any telling passes in the final third.
Andres Iniesta and Iago Aspas were sent on for the former champions as Hierro’s side tried to find a way through the very stubborn defence of the host nation.
The former fired one towards goal with just five minutes to go, but his volley was comfortably saved by Akinfeev. Extra time beckoned.
As expected, the additional 30 minutes saw more of the same. Pass, pass, pass from Spain, but with no reward at the end of it all.
Valencia striker Rodrigo was introduced as the Spaniard’s fourth substitute with the game in extra time, and instantly became his side’s brightest spark in an attempt to win and avoid penalties.
With his back to goal, the 27-year-old let a pass into his feet roll between his legs, and with that he was away.
Rodrigo breezed past his full-back and got around the last man, but his effort from a fairly tight angle was pushed away from Akinfeev. It went back into a dangerous area, but the follow-up effort was blocked, and Russia survived again.
Then with five minutes to go, the big talking point came.
Spain won a free-kick in a dangerous area, and as it was curled in and drifted behind, it appeared that both centre halves, Ramos and Pique, were hauled down. Both players, along with virtually the whole Spanish team were screaming for a penalty in the face of referee Bjorn Kuipers.
After a long conversation with VAR officials, the Dutchman refused to even take a second look for himself, and Russia – again – escaped. That was the last action of the extra period, and penalties loomed for both sets of players.
Veteran Iniesta, who scored Spain’s most famous goal in their 2010 success, stepped up first and slotted his away, with the three men after him following suit.
Koke stepped up for the third Spanish spot-kick, but his weak effort was well saved by Akinfeev diving away to his right. For the first time all afternoon, it was advantage Russia.
Youngster Golovin kept his cool to put the hosts ahead, Ramos replied, but three-goal Cheryshev fired home to make it match point Russia.
Spanish substitute Iago Aspas was next. The Celta Vigo forward had very little impact on the game since his cameo on the 80th minute, but the hopes of his great nation rested with him – on his shoulders, as he had to convert otherwise the Spaniards would be on the plane home.
He opted for the Russian’s tactic of hammering it down the middle, but unlike with the hosts, it didn’t work to great effect.
Akinfeev dived, again to his right, but flicked out a boot in what will become an iconic Russian moment frozen in time, to clear the ball into touch and send the whole of Russia into raptures.
Madness ensued. This incredible World Cup continues to throw up shocks and surprises, and the unfancied Russians’ march goes on.
Spain meanwhile were left floored, and have yet to win a knockout game in tournament football since their Euro 2012 success. Questions will be asked of Fernando Hierro’s side, but in a bid for answers, fingers will be pointed to the bizarre sacking of coach Julen Lopetegui a solitary day before this summer’s tournament kicked off.
Super Subasic spares Modric blushes as Croatia make the quarters
Croatia beat Denmark on penalties to book their place in the quarter-finals for only the second time despite Luka Modric seeing a late spot-kick saved in extra time.
The only two goals were both scored in the opening four minutes, with Mathias Jorgensen netting for Denmark in the first 60 seconds – the quickest strike of the World Cup so far.
Neither side could find a way through following the frantic start, but Real Madrid’s Modric was denied by a stunning Kasper Schmeichel penalty save with just minutes left of extra time after Andrej Kramaric was brought down with the goal at his mercy.
Both sides went into the game having only made the last eight of a World Cup once before, and having witnessed the shock that unfolded before them earlier in the day as hosts Russia knocked Spain out, a wonderful opportunity was there for the taking.
That result made Zlatko Dalić’s side favourites to reach the semi-finals in their section of the draw, but that was blown out of the water just seconds after kick-off against the Danes.
Denmark won a throw on the right inside the Croatian half, and it was launched into the box. Midfielder Thomas Delaney managed to bring it down amidst a scramble and poke it to Huddersfield’s Mathias Jorgensen, and the defender hit a low, weak shot which somehow squirmed under the body of goalkeeper Danijel Subasic and into the net.
The AS Monaco shot-stopper should really have done better, and the Croatians inside the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium were stunned. Their side needed to respond, but little did they know they were about to do it in double-quick time.
Full-back Sime Vrsaljko broke forward with purpose down the right and played a neat one-two with Ivan Rakitic. After getting the ball back, the Atletico Madrid man played a cross in which was cleared first time but only against the head of Andreas Christensen, and on his toes to fire the ball past Kasper Schmeichel was striker Mario Mandzukic, who swivelled and finished well to score his first goal of this summer’s tournament.
The breathtaking start wasn’t for the faint-hearted, but the game did settle down after Mandzukic’s leveller. Barring a double save from Schmeichel to deny first Rakitic and then Ante Rebic, the remainder of the first half bared little chances for either side, and the scores were all-square heading into the break.
The second half didn’t present much to shout about either. Croatia went close twice late on with a header from Ivan Perisic that looped over the bar and a venomous volley from Rakitic that flew inches wide, whilst Martin Braithwaite struck an effort off-target for Denmark in the last minute of stoppage time.
Extra time seemed destined from early on, and that’s exactly where both sides were heading.
Despite Croatia being the favourites with the bookies, it was the Danes who had looked more comfortable throughout. Substitutes Lasse Schone and Pione Sisto fired efforts wide either side of the extra time interval, and this one appeared to be petering out into a penalty shootout, just as the day’s earlier match had.
But that was until the 114th minute of play, when the Croatians broke forward.
Receiving the ball in the centre circle, their talisman Modric took one touch before playing a perfectly weighted pass through towards Kramaric, and after getting the beating of last man Jorgensen, the Hoffenheim forward was away.
One-on-one with Schmeichel, the striker coolly rounded his opponent, but as he was about to pass the ball into the net from 12 yards, the recovering Jorgensen came flying in from behind. With no hesitations, Croatia had a penalty, and finally, their chance to win the tie.
It was the ever-reliable Modric, the man who carved the Danish defence open initially with his superb pass, who stepped up – expecting to lead his side to the last eight. But despite over four million Croatians willing it in back home, it wasn’t to be.
Diving away to his left, the formidable figure of Kasper Schmeichel not only saved, but held Modric’s spot-kick, much to the delight of his nation, and one particularly proud father in the Nizhny Novgorod stands.
Denmark had been gifted a second chance when they seemed down and out, and as the referee blew to signal penalties, they were determined to not let this one slip.
The surprisingly quiet Christian Eriksen was first up from the spot, but like Modric before him, was foiled. It was the first of a number of terrific shootout saves, as Subasic tipped the Spurs man’s effort onto the post.
Schmeichel saved his second penalty of the night as the shootout remained goalless, keeping out Milan Badelj, but four penalties were then scored in succession – the last coming from Modric, who put his earlier demons to bed by fooling Schmeichel and sending his effort straight down the middle with the Danish keeper diving the same way as before.
Both keepers then continued to outdo each other, as Subasic saved from Schone and Schmeichel stopped Josip Pivaric, but after Subasic saved yet another penalty to deny Nicolai Jorgensen, all of a sudden it was match point Croatia.
It was another one of their La Liga midfield magicians, Ivan Rakitic, who stepped up.
With the weight of a nation on his shoulders, the Barcelona man remained calm and collected, and confidently dispatched his penalty to confirm Croatia’s place in the quarter-finals.
Devastated Denmark could have given no more, but a stunning shootout from Subasic was enough. The 33-year-old became only the second goalkeeper to save three penalties in a World Cup shootout, after Portugal’s Ricardo did the exact same to eliminate England on this very day twelve years ago.
And it’s performances such as that which can define not only one game, but an entire tournament.
Player of the Day – Igor Akinfeev (Russia)
Without question, Day Seventeen has been the day of the goalkeeper.
Schmeichel bowed out with pride and Subasic equalled a record, but it was a certain Igor Akinfeev who captured the hearts of the host nation with his two brilliant shootout saves, the second of which being one that has already been carved deep into Russian history.
And there could never be a more beautifully written fairytale.
Now at the age of 32, Igor Akinfeev is Moscow born and bred. He lives and breathes Russia’s capital city. It’s in his blood.
The CSKA Moscow goalkeeper was born less than 20 miles away from the Luzhniki Stadium in a town called Vidnoye, and has been on the books of his Russian Premier League club since the age of five.
During the early stages of his senior career, Akinfeev was regularly linked with moves to the Premier League – Manchester United and Arsenal were just a couple of big names constantly rumoured, but the goalkeeper’s loyalties never once wavered.
He joined CSKA in 1991 and having quashed all speculation of a transfer has now spent an astonishing 27 years with the club. So on his stage in his city, nobody was going to take his moment away from him.
In fairness, Akinfeev had very little to do during the game against the former world champions. Spain had large spells of possession but rarely threatened thanks to the resolute backline in front of him, but when penalties came around, it was always going to be the goalkeeper’s time to shine.
The first save to deny Koke was impressive, but the second and decisive stop with his flying foot to keep out Iago Aspas, was out of this world.
Heading into the tournament, the Russians have potentially been the most pessimistic supporters of any host nation in history. But now? Now they believe that this is well and truly on.
And should they go all the way, that Akinfeev save will be spoken about for decades; stories passed down from generation to generation through Russian families, the same way England fans still today speak of that famous day in 1966.