Beautiful at times and grotesque at others, Spain somehow progressed to the Round of 16 on the back of a 2–2 draw against a feisty Morocco that left the Iberians at the top of Group B. The Lions hounded Spain in the opening minutes. Their fervor raised the temperature of the game early on and sent a clear message that while they were knocked out of the tournament, they would not lie down.
In the 14th minute an uncharacteristic moment of hesitation from Sergio Ramos and a poor touch from Andres Iniesta allowed Khalid Boutaib to nick the ball, storm his way into the box, and finish between the splaying legs of David De Gea. Gerard Pique could only trail behind the play. Isco snapped back quickly for Spain by emphatically finishing a crisp pass from Iniesta into the roof of the goal. La Furia Roja tightened their grip on proceedings for the rest of the half, while Morocco picked up four yellow cards in their quest to hack down Spain’s diminutive playmakers.
Nordin Amrabat rattled Spain in the 55th minute when his crot (something between a cross and shot) careened of the cross bar, but Spain held firm and continued to play a domineering version of total football that, while not yielding goals, was at least pretty on the eye.
The Lions highlighted Spain’s defensive instability again when 21 year-old Yousef En-Nesyri outcompeted Ramos for a header off a corner, which he smacked into the top right corner. Spain sent Marco Asensio and Iago Aspas into the fray, and it was the latter who brought Spain level continuing the trend of stoppage time goals in Russia. Evocative of David Villa’s backheel flick against Australia at the 2014 World Cup, Aspas showed immaculate control to guide the ball into the net. Although the goal was initially ruled offsides, VAR demonstrated otherwise and finally gave Spain a breath in the dying moments of the game.
Morocco: The Dark Horse That Could Have Been
Younes Belhanda, Hakim Ziyech, Nordin Amrabat, Mehdi Benatia, and Achraf Hakimi: heading into the World Cup, Morocco offered an intriguing squad that suggested they could be a dark horse in Group B who could challenge heavyweights Spain and Portugal. Too bad the North Africans only discovered their potential in the third game. With their fate determined before they faced Spain, the Lions finally roared into life. Although their reliance on physicality was a little extreme, imagine if they had taken this same fearless approach in their previous games. Ziyech, in particular, will be disappointed not to have impressed more, and a potential dream move from Ajax may not materialize now.
For Spain, A Tale of Attack and Defence
Between Ramos and Pique, they have 254 combined caps for the Spanish National Team. 254! And yet against Morocco, they made a litany of errors that have become all too usual in this World Cup. Ramos seemed unsure of both his and his teammates positioning, and it was his mistake that gave up possession to Boutaib and his lost aerial duel that resulted in Morocco’s second. Pique too made silly mistakes like getting beaten over the top by a long throw that nearly lead to a goal were it not for strong keeping from De Gea. As Isco whirred and purred further up the field, Iniesta slalomed, and Diego Costa bullied and harried, Spain have shown they can score – the biggest concern heading into the tournament – but their defence has been unusually porous. Five goals in three games is far too many. Spain won the 2010 World Cup on the back of a stalwart defense that only conceded one goal in the whole tournament. They will need to rediscover their steel in the knockout rounds, especially considering their next test will be an extremely offensive Russian side backed by the Moscow faithful.
VAR Makes Headlines
On any other day, this would have been a miserable result for Spain. Finishing the World Cup group stage with a 1–1–1 record is not ideal and hardly deserving of a first place finish in the group. Yet here we are, and we have VAR to thank. Video review was crucial in awarding Aspas’ goal to level things up, but perhaps more important was the decision to award Iran a penalty against Portugal that allowed the Iranians to level things up themselves. In the blink of an eye, Portugal went from seven points at the top of the group to five points in second place. Spain’s six goals scored to Portugal’s five proved the tiebreaker. After 270 minutes of play, two refereeing decisions in stoppage time decided who would play recently defeated Russia or unflinching Uruguay.