Russia head coach Stanislav Cherchesov called the World Cup hosts’ second round encounter with Spain a “life or death” game, and compared it to an exam they would have to pass.
The teams meet at the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday for a place in the quarterfinals, but Russia’s progress even to this stage something of a surprise after most pre-tournament predictions viewed them as candidates to exit in the first round.
Speaking to the media the day before the game, Cherchesov agreed when he was asked if this was a “life or death” match.
“This is a playoff — and you’re right, it is a life or death match,” he said. “It’s not pressure [that we feel] — there is a responsibility that we both have: if you lose you’re out. It’s an exam. You write, your professor will read and check, and then we’ll get the score.”
Russian fans are expected to dominate a strong 80,000 crowd for the match, but both Cherchesov and forward Denis Cheryshev — who plays his club football for Villarreal in Spain — denied this placed added pressure on the team.
“The luck of the draw is that we play in Moscow,” said Cheryshev. “It’s great to have 80,000 fans behind us. Had we played in Sochi we would’ve had the same ambition. We have to be professionals, to play to win.
“I’m sure we’ll have a hard game. We know they’re excellent, but we also have our assets and we have to take advantage of them. I think we can win against anybody. We can always win, and that’s what we have to think and believe.”
Cherchesov added that it will be an occasion to enjoy.
“For us tomorrow has to be a party, especially for the fans at large,” he said. “We need to give 200%, and we know that’s our responsibility. We need to be professional. We are playing at home, but the team is relaxed and we’re very much ready to do a good job.”
The two sides met in a friendly last November, a game which ended in a frantic 3-3 draw, although many things have changed since then, particularly after Julen Lopetegui was sacked on the eve of the tournament, replaced by Fernando Hierro.
“They lost their coach — I’m not sure why they had to,” said Cherchesov. “Lots of people have been writing but I don’t know why. They have changed but we have been analysing this. Before it was a test game, but now it’s a real game.”
This is not the first time that the two coaches have met. In their playing days, they faced each other in the 1990-91 European Cup semifinal, when Hierro’s Real Madrid were drawn against goalkeeper Cherchesov’s Spartak Moscow.
Spartak won the tie 3-1, with all the goals coming in the second leg in Madrid. They had already knocked out Diego Maradona’s Napoli, and as a consequence of the result and disappointing domestic results, Real manager Alfredo Di Stefano resigned.
Cherchesov is looking to take inspiration from that encounter.
“At that time, Spanish teams were favourites, but as we say in Russia, anyone can be god if he tries to,” he said. “Hierro was a good player, now he’s a great coach. Everything was different back then — the weather, the stadium, the players. We won against them — nobody believed we could, but we did.”