MOSCOW (AP) — For a team that fired its coach two days before its first World Cup match, Spain has quietly played its way into a fine position.
Sure, there have been questions about its defense and criticism from fans back home. But Spain still did enough to win its group, opening its campaign under new coach Fernando Hierro with a thrilling 3-3 draw against Portugal. La Roja followed that with a victory over Iran and then salvaged a draw against Morocco with an injury-time equalizer.
Three matches, six goals scored and five conceded: That was good enough to earn Spain a favorable matchup on Sunday with host Russia, which has already overachieved in the tournament, rather than robust Uruguay, which has yet to allow a goal. The Spaniards also squeezed into the half of the draw that doesn’t include Brazil, France or Belgium.
Spain will have to deal with a hostile crowd at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, the historic and much-renovated venue where Russia opened the World Cup with a 5-0 romp over Saudi Arabia.
“Luzhniki is my stadium,” Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov said.
But Russia looked overmatched against Uruguay amid similar friendly environs in Samara.
Hierro’s unexpected ascendancy to coach — after Julen Lopetegui was fired for taking a job with Real Madrid — has allowed the former national team star to build on an impressive World Cup history. He reached the World Cup quarterfinals twice in three appearances, and he scored five goals in the tournament, the last coming in a 2002 group-stage win over Paraguay. His 29 international goals for Spain rank fifth in national team history.
Goal-scoring glory aside, Hierro was no striker. He played defensive midfielder, and that’s the part of the field where Spain has been shaky.
“We need to improve. Every occasion against us is dangerous,” Hierro said. “If we want to go far in the World Cup, we have to make some adjustments. We have to recognize that this is not working. We have to be self-critical and recognize that we can’t concede like this.”
Long known for its defense, Spain didn’t give up a single goal in the knockout stage during its 2010 World Cup triumph.
Some of this year’s goals can be traced to individual mistakes — with goalkeeper David De Gea under particular scrutiny — rather than systemic breakdowns. Hierro has pledged to stick with De Gea, and attention to detail on the back end against Russia ought to be enough for a team of Spain’s superior talent.
Cherchesov has coached with a bravado that belies his team’s pedigree. He credited diligent preparation, along with “solidarity and cohesion,” for Russia’s 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia and a 3-1 win over Egypt. After Russia fell to Uruguay, Cherchesov said his players simply failed to execute his plans to counteract Uruguay’s set pieces.
The teams meet at 5 p.m. (10 a.m. EDT, 1400 GMT) in the opener of Sunday’s knockout matches.
CROATIA VS. DENMARK
9 p.m. (2 p.m. EDT, 1800 GMT)
Both teams were unbeaten in group play, but Croatia was far more impressive.
Entering the tournament 20th in the FIFA rankings, Croatia has outscored its group opponents 7-1, including a 3-0 humiliation of Argentina. The only team to equalize against Croatia was Iceland on a 76th-minute penalty in a match the group leader didn’t need to win.
Even so, coach Zlatko Dalic said he was “annoyed” by the misstep against Iceland. This Croatia team has high standards, as Denmark coach Age Hareide knows.
Asked to analyze his opponent in detail, Hareide smiled and shook his head: “Very good. It’s very good.”
Captain Luka Modric, whose club team is Real Madrid, is the 32-year-old leader of a veteran team that also includes 30-year-old Ivan Rakitic of Barcelona and 32-year-old Mario Mandzukic of Juventus. Croatia’s best World Cup result was a semifinal appearance in 1998, and Dalic has said this team is deeper than that squad, which only had two players on major European clubs.
The Danes, meanwhile, have just two goals — one by Tottenham star Christian Eriksen — and one victory, over Peru. Denmark managed a 1-1 draw against Australia and then was content to lay back in a 0-0 draw against France that benefited both teams.
The star for Denmark has been goalkeeper Kaspar Schmeichel. The goal by Australia was the only one he’s allowed in the team’s last seven matches.
“That he’s played so well is not a surprise to us,” captain and defender Simon Kjaer said.
The winner of Spain-Russia awaits the Croatia-Denmark victor.
Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols
More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup