MOSCOW: Russia are hoping for a World Cup miracle on Sunday as the host nation take on 2010 winners Spain for a place in the quarter-finals following the exit of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
The other last-16 match pits a talented Croatia team led by Luka Modric against Denmark, but the sides in action will struggle to emulate the drama of Saturday’s first two last-16 matches.
Russia came into the tournament derided by their own supporters after a string of defeats in warm-up matches but they thrashed Saudi Arabia 5-0 in their opener and then swept aside Egypt 3-1, making even their own sceptical public believe.
A comprehensive defeat to Uruguay provided a reality check but Russia and midfielder Denis Cheryshev will be roared on by much of the 80,000-crowd in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow and they see no reason to fear Andres Iniesta, Isco and Diego Costa.
Farewell Messi, Ronaldo
The World Cup is now missing its two biggest stars after Ronaldo and Messi bowed out, leaving the competition for possibly the last time.
Ronaldo will be 37 by the time the next World Cup iS played in Qatar, but he would not be drawn on whether he planned to extend his international career after Portugal lost 2-1 to Uruguay, courtesy of two goals from Edinson Cavani.
“Now is not the time to talk about the future of players and coaches,” said Ronaldo, who, like Messi, leaves the World Cup having never scored a goal in the knockout rounds.
Saturday’s dramatic last-16 openers, which featured 10 goals, marked a handing on of the torch to a new generation, with French teenager Kylian Mbappe announcing himself on the world stage.
France beat Messi’s Argentina 4-3 in a World Cup classic as Mbappe scored twice to send the two-time winners packing.
Mbappe, 19, became the first teenager to score twice in a World Cup match since a 17-year-old Pele in the 1958 final. The Brazilian legend tweeted to the Frenchman: “Congratulations, @KMbappe, 2 goals in a World Cup so young puts you in great company.”
Messi though was unable to find the net, leaving Russia with a single goal, and at 31 the Barcelona great has probably seen any chance of winning the World Cup evaporate.—AFP