The most successful Russia coach in recent times is among the multitude of people surprised that the team is into a World Cup round-of-16 game against Spain.
A host team exceeding expectation is waiting at Luzhniki Stadium tomorrow for the 2010 World Cup champion, which has been under fire in Spain.
Dutch coaching great Guus Hiddink guided Russia to the European Championship semi-finals 10 years ago on a run stopped by a Spanish squad at the start of their title-winning era.
Hiddink visited the Russian squad for a pep talk at training, translated - loosely and with added humour - by current coach Stanislas Cherchesov.
"You're doing so far very well, unexpected for me, a little bit unexpected to be honest," Hiddink told the group, which includes some players he worked with a decade ago.
Russia kicked off the World Cup as the lowest-ranked team but used momentum from an opening 5-0 rout of Saudi Arabia to beat Egypt 3-1. A 3-0 loss against Uruguay was a reality check, and creative midfielder Alan Dzagoev is still missing after injuring a hamstring early in the first game.
Spain have settled after some pre-tournament turmoil when Julen Lopetegui was fired because he took the vacant Real Madrid job without informing the national federation. An opening 3-3 thriller against Portugal was followed by a tight 1-0 win over Iran. A 2-2 draw with Morocco needed a late equaliser confirmed by video review.
But advancing to the knockout rounds as the unbeaten winner of Group B under interim coach Fernando Hierro has not won back full support back home.
"I think we have received more than enough criticism," defender Dani Carvajal said. "We are being questioned so much in our own country that it can't be good for us, but we try to be above that. We try to be close as a group because that's what we have left."
Five goals conceded is already three more than in the 2010 title run, and some can be traced to individual mistakes by veterans AndrÃs Iniesta and Sergio Ramos, and goalkeeper David De Gea.
The winner tomorrow moves on to Sochi for a quarter-final against Croatia or Denmark.