MOSCOW • A World Cup last-16 match between Spain and Russia would have seemed like a woeful mismatch a month ago, but today's game in Moscow is now more difficult to call, thanks to the 2010 winners' underwhelming campaign.
The Spaniards topped Group B but picked up only five points - the fewest of all group winners.
Spanish defender Dani Carvajal said his side, who drew 3-3 with Portugal and 2-2 with Morocco, must tighten up at the back against the Russians.
"On Sunday, we have a very difficult game against the host nation, who scored eight goals in two games and have the whole country behind them," he said. "Russia is a strong and quick team and we have to be very wary of giving the ball away. We have to be very focused."
However, he added that teams will be forced to attack more in the knockout stages, where he expects Spain to come out from the shadows and up their game.
"From now on, the games are life or death - you can't play for a draw," he said. "I think these games are going to be where we will recover our best form."
Russia beat Saudi Arabia 5-0 and Egypt 3-1 in Group A to reach the knockout stages. While Stanislav Cherchesov's side were then brought back to earth by a 3-0 defeat by Uruguay, they could cause Spain problems if they can rediscover the energy that propelled them to those first two group wins.
Russia defender Sergei Ignashevich said his side had studied how Iran and Morocco managed to trouble Spain defensively.
"Their defenders try to get high up the pitch and that leads to a lot of free space and allows you to create danger on the counter-attack," he said. "That was one of Spain's biggest weaknesses."
Not that Spain do not know their own strengths and weaknesses well though, as defender Cesar Azpilicueta said: "We've always had this problem. When you get lots of players up front, sometimes a counter-attack can take you by surprise. We must work on this point."
The Spaniards will be looking to Isco to lead their attack in hopes of scoring more than they concede.
The playmaker has delivered lively displays in all of Spain's games, which have not gone unnoticed in the Spanish dressing room.
"When the game gets ugly, he is the one who takes charge, he never hides. He is having a spectacular World Cup," added Carvajal.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS