After high of beating Spain, Russia must adapt for Croatia

MOSCOW (AP) — Coach Stanislav Cherchesov seems to be the only Russian not caught up in the euphoria of the country’s biggest World Cup win in decades.

In the quarterfinals, Croatia will present a different challenge for the host nation, which must make changes.

As his players were still partying in the dressing room and Russians were flooding into Red Square to celebrate Sunday’s win on penalties over Spain, Cherchesov rattled through a list of upcoming medical tests, tactical sessions and squad selection decisions.

“The job’s done. Now we’re thinking about the next game,” Cherchesov said, adding he’s saving his emotions “for later.”

The gruff veteran coach admits other teams have more skill, but the Spain victory — planned “down to the millimeter” — showed the right tactics mean everything.

Russia’s ultra-defensive approach worked against a risk-averse Spain team that completed more than 1,000 passes, but almost none into the penalty area. Spanish defensive errors, a possible symptom of switching coaches just two days before the World Cup, gave Russia chances to attack.

Croatia reached the quarterfinals just like Russia — on penalties after a 1-1 draw — but its win over Denmark was a very different game, and its style could hurt Russia in Sochi on Saturday. Star midfielder Luka Modric offers passing with a purpose that Spain lacked, while Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic have a versatility Russia didn’t face in the round of 16.

Croatia will take note of Spain’s success in extra time, when it took more risks and began running at the Russian defense. When Rodrigo charged down the right flank, he forced a good save from Igor Akinfeev, before Dani Carvajal mishit the rebound.

Only Uruguay has consistently tested Russia’s defense, beating Cherchesov’s team 3-0 in the group stage. Russia struggled to cope, though little was at stake since both teams had qualified. An early red card for Igor Smolnikov and extreme heat limited Russia’s hard-running style. The Croatia game in Sochi is forecast to be cooler.

Russia can play with five at the back, as against Spain, or a four-man defense, as in the three group-stage games. However, playing five defenders against Croatia could expose the limits of the Russian squad.

Left back Yuri Zhirkov “has, I fear, played his last game at the tournament” with a knee injury, Cherchesov said. When Zhirkov went off, that meant Fyodor Kudryashov switching to the left. Vladimir Granat came into the center of defense, but failed to complete a single pass all game. The only other option was center back Andrei Semyonov, whose last Russia game was in March 2017.

Whatever happens against Croatia, the cautious Cherchesov will have plans.

“It’s one thing to be a strong team or a strong player,” he said. “It’s another thing to be a strong team or a strong player in the right time and place. That’s what we had.”

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