Spain vs. Russia

Sunday’s slate of games starts with Group B winner Spain against Group A runner-up Russia.

In a big tournament surprise, Russia finessed its way out of Group A. On its home turf, a 5-0 pummeling of Saudi Arabia and a 3-1 win over Egypt showed the hosts know how to put the ball in the net. However, Russia failed to win its most important game, as no doubt they would have preferred Portugal’s defense over Spain’s. Forwards Denis Cheryshev (3 goals) and Artem Dzyuba (2 goals) will be tested to convert chances against a stout Spain defense.

If there’s any cause for concern for the Spaniards, it’s that Russia is playing out of its mind and home-field advantage might give Russia an undeniable inspiration. But if there’s anything to take away from the group stage, it’s that Russia is capable of beating worse teams, but struggles when facing stronger opposition. Russia will come into this match with a certain swagger (especially after Spain drew Morocco), but this will certainly be the toughest matchup Russia has faced.

Meanwhile, Spain staggered its way to the top of Group B with a very uncharacteristic group stage performance. Spain continued to prove a 3-6-1 formation can work as it had at least 60 percent possession in every match (yes Russia, you read that number right). But even with staggering possession totals, Spain tallied only six goals in three matches (three of which came from an unlikely customer in Diego Costa).

However, Spain simultaneously showed that its midfield is in great form and is capable of dominating possession. Isco, Inesta and David Silva will be formidable foes for Russia, who will see very little of the ball during the match. Furthermore, even a high-flying offense will face major problems against a solid back line in center-back-turned-forward Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Daniel Carvajal.

Matchup to Watch – Artem Dzyuba vs. Gerard Pique

It’s as simple as this—Dzyuba needs to have a great performance to guide Russia to victory and Gerard Pique has been facing more defensive responsibilities now that Sergio Ramos has decided to be hybrid defender/striker. Another piece to this puzzle stands between Spain’s goalposts – David de Gea. If Russia can break through for a goal and de Gea struggles, Spain may be heading to the beach sooner than it thinks. But if de Gea can stay steady and Spain dominates possession so much so that its defense faces no pressure, Russia will be relegated back to its parkas.

Prediction – Spain 3, Russia 0

As for an upset here, it’s going to be a nyet from me dawg. Russia’s Cinderella story comes to end as Spain dominates the Russian midfield and exposes its back line to have its best offensive game. Sergio Ramos rediscovers the CB next to his name on the team sheet as he and Pique shut down the Russian attack. De Gea makes no noticeable mistakes so as to not give the entire Spanish population a nervous breakdown.