Russia humbled as Uruguay surge into final 16
THE euphoria surrounding Russia's national team at the World Cup has been brought back down to earth.
After beating Saudi Arabia and Egypt to reach the knockout stages for the first time since the Soviet era, the host's limitations were painfully evident in the 3-0 loss to Uruguay.
Uruguay scored all their goals from set pieces, something Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov said he'd planned to counteract. His players just couldn't execute the plan.
"We knew it and we prepared for it, but we didn't manage to cope with it," he said.
After the whistle, midfielder Roman Zobnin collapsed on the field. Defender Ilya Kutepov stayed as both teams headed for the dressing room, waving to the Russian fans and shrugging.
Russians' emotions have soared and plunged during the World Cup, and their music reflects that.
A song by comedian Semyon Slepakov went viral just before the tournament, poking fun at Russia's poor form and suggesting players needed Chechnya's authoritarian leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, as coach for extra motivation.
Russia exceeded those rock-bottom expectations by beating Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
As fans partied on the streets near the Kremlin, Slepakov changed his tune.
The follow-up song Champions mixes celebration and patriotism with apologetic lines like "Sorry guys, we're really jerks/ We didn't believe in you."
Instead of either song, Russian fans in Samara started the second half at 2-0 down with the traditional complaint "We need a goal."
In a stadium whose soaring roof was designed to evoke the majesty of space exploration, Russia failed to launch.
Squad depth was a problem. Alexander Golovin had been the team's creative spark in midfield, but he was rested since another yellow card for him would have meant a one-game ban.
His replacement, Alexei Miranchuk, was all but invisible, squeezed out of the game by Uruguay's midfield.
Russia also swapped in fullbacks Fyodor Kudryashov and Igor Smolnikov and they struggled badly. Smolnikov tried to make his mark on Uruguay with crunching tackles, but that just brought two yellow cards and a sending-off in the 36th minute.
On the left, Kudryashov was often left exposed by Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez's feints.
Uruguay registered 17 shots to Russia's three. Captain and goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev has long had a reputation for mistakes under pressure in high-profile games - notably fumbling a goal against South Korea four years ago - and was slow to react to both of Uruguay's first-half goals.
The weather was against the Russians, too.
In their wins over Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Russia's midfielders ran further and harder than almost anyone else at the World Cup. That's difficult to do for a third straight game, and even harder in Samara's baking summer heat.
After all the euphoria, forward Artyom Dzyuba suggested it might even be positive for Russia to get "a smack" from Uruguay before the knockout stages.
As well as a wake-up call, defeat to Uruguay could leave Russia with favorable conditions for the round of 16.
Finishing second in Group A gives Russia a game July 1 at Moscow's Luzhniki stadium, where it demolished Saudi Arabia 5-0, while Uruguay will have to play in the searing heat at the beach resort of Sochi.
"The only plus is that we'll play at Luzhniki," Cherchesov said.
"Luzhniki is my stadium."