Spain will have to beat a revved-up Russia and their own appalling record against host nations when the two sides meet in Moscow on Sunday for a place in the World Cup quarter-finals.
Spain have played hosts eight times at major championships and have lost every time – a remarkable record for a team that has won a World Cup and two European Championships.
Coach Fernando Hierro’s played in two of those matches, against England in 1996 and, in his final match, against South Korea in 2002.
At the pre-match press conference at the Luzhniki Stadium on Saturday, a journalist started a question to Hierro by reminding him of Spain’s sorry record against host nations, only for the former Real Madrid stalwart to interrupt.
“Why don’t you give us some good news?” he asked, albeit with a smile on his face.
When the journalist persevered, Hierro said: “Statistics are there to be broken. Why are we looking in the rear-view mirror when we’re in the fourth game of the World Cup?
“It’s about tomorrow at 5pm, that’s it. Everything else is in the past.”
Sitting alongside was Manchester City midfielder David Silva, a mainstay of Spain’s sweet-passing sides for over a decade, but now the subject of mounting criticism, so much so that dropping him may be one of Hierro’s first big calls as coach.
The 50-year-old is only in the job because Julen Lopetegui was sacked two days before Spain’s first game at Russia 2018 when he revealed he had agreed to take over at Real Madrid after the tournament.
Despite only limited coaching experience in Spain, Hierro was seen as a safe pair of hands, which is interesting as another of his selection headaches is the patchy form of Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea.
Hierro was giving nothing away here, saying only that “11 players will be taking the field tomorrow”.
Spain’s performances so far have been decidedly average for a team of its talent: a thrilling draw with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, a laboured win over Iran and a surprisingly fraught draw with Morocco.
“I’ve been in the team for 12 years, I’m used to criticism,” said Silva.
“We played OK in parts of the first game and also the second game. In the end it was a tough group and Portugal also struggled. We just need to play and change people’s minds.”
Russia, on the other hand, have already changed people’s minds.
They entered the tournament as the worst-ranked host in history – the 70th best team in the world, according to FIFA – but then beat Saudi Arabia and Egypt with two hard-running performances that surprised their own fans as much as anyone else.
Russia then lost to Uruguay, but played a large chunk of that game with 10 men and confidence is still high in the camp and country.
One of the key reasons for that is the form of Denis Cheryshev, who has spent most of his life in Spain and is a product of the Real Madrid youth system. Now with Villarreal, he speaks Russian with a Spanish accent and plays football with Spanish flair.
“I’m sure we’re going to have a hard time,” said Cheryshev.
“We know they are an excellent team but we have our assets and we’ll use them. They are one of the best teams in the world, but I think we can win against anyone. That’s what we have to believe.”
His coach Stanislav Cherchesov nodded his assen,t but broke into a grin when he was reminded of his history with Hierro.
Cherchesov was Spartak Moscow’s goalkeeper when they beat Real, with Hierro in defence, over two legs in the European Cup in 1991.
“As we say in Russia, anyone can be God if they try,” said Cherchesov.
“The Luzhniki Stadium was different then, the weather was different and the team was different, but we beat the Spanish team. Nobody believed we could win and hopefully we can repeat that success tomorrow.”