A pulsating World Cup 2018 encounter between Iran and Portugal ended in a 1-1 draw on Monday night.
Ricardo Quaresma opened the scoring in Group B with a sensational strike on the stroke of half-time that will be a contender for goal of the tournament.
Cristiano Ronaldo endured a largely frustrating outing and failed to convert a penalty in the second half after winning it himself.
The decision on that occasion was awarded retrospectively with the help of VAR and the technology was used again in the closing stages of the encounter to hand Iran a lifeline.
Cedric Soares was penalised for hand ball from a Sardar Azmoun header inside the area and Karim Ansarifard duly dispatched the effort from 12 yard to draw his side level in stoppage time.
It was too little too late for the Asian powerhouse though, as they were knocked out of the World Cup.
IRAN A TOUGH NUT TO CRACK
Iran conceded just two goals during World Cup qualifying and were touted as one of the best defensive units headed to the tournament.
Given the way they’ve performed in Russia, it’s easy to see why. Having kept a lively Morocco side at bay in their opening fixture, they frustrated Spain for the most part in a 1-0 defeat.
Portugal were the latest to attempt to wear down their stubborn resistance on Monday night and for most of the first half, it looked as if Ronaldo and Co wouldn’t be able to pick this particular lock.
Carlos Queiroz has been in charge of Team Melli for seven years now and his influence is evident. His side was incredibly organised again at Mordovia Arena.
Portugal – the team he last led from 2008-10 – normally pose a potent counter-attacking threat but every time they looked to break on the night, Iran got back swiftly and impressively retained their shape.
It was always going to take something special to break Iran’s resilience. Ronaldo tried to beat Alireza Beiranvand from about 40 yards out with a venomous strike that the keeper held on to.
Then it was Quaresma’s turn to attempt the audacious and it paid off. His sublime outside-of-the-boot strike from the edge of the area after a slick one-two with Adrien Silva was an effort worthy of breaching Iran’s goal.
PORTUGAL’S DEFENSIVE STALWARTS
One of the main concerns for Portugal heading into this tournament was their personnel at centre-back.
Pepe, while an experienced campaigner, was deemed well past his best at the ripe old age of 35. Meanwhile, the fact that he’s partnered by a 34-year-old in Jose Fonte only fed the Portuguese support’s trepidation.
However, the duo has been impressive for the Selecao. Apart from a frenetic encounter against Spain that ended in a thrilling 3-3 draw, both centre-backs have been rock solid, maintaining a clean sheet against Morocco and only conceding via a contentious penalty against Iran.
A mobile and physically imposing striker in Sadar Azmoun kept Pepe and Fonte on their toes but between the two of them, they were able to cope with the 23-year-old Iranian. This was noticeable against Iran’s aerial threat, Pepe winning nine of those duels and Fonte six.
With Iran pushing forward in their quest to remain in the tournament, the duo had to make several clearances to see the game out and book their side’s place in the round of 16.
VAR DOESN’T END DEBATE
We’re 36 games into the 2018 edition of the World Cup and already its yielded a whopping 20 penalties. Even before the group stages have concluded, that’s already set a new record for the most penalties at a World Cup with the previous highest (18) coming from the 2002 edition while the tournament in Brazil four years ago saw only 13 awarded.
By and large, the technology has proved to be a success although the stoppages that can incur sometimes seem unnecessary. However, given the nature of the game, there are still plenty of grey areas.
Ronaldo’s booking for one was a dubious decision after the referee reviewed it on the screen when the Portugal skipper didn’t seem to catch Morteza Pouraliganji in the face like the defender made out.
Meanwhile, Soares’ handball decision was on the harsh side as well with the right-back seemingly incapable of avoiding it as he competed for a header.
Spain will face hosts Russia in the last 16 of the World Cup after finishing top of Group B following a dramatic 2-2 draw with already-eliminated Morocco in Kaliningrad.
Spain, 2-1 down thanks to Morocco substitute Youssef En-Nesyri’s 81st minute header, were set to finish second and therefore take on Uruguay in the next round.
Their substitute Iago Aspas then flicked the ball into the net in the dying seconds and saw that the flag was up for offside – but the goal was subsequently given following a VAR review.
Here are player ratings from Kaliningrad:
De Gea 6. Made his first save of the tournament, producing a decent stop to deny Boutaib, but failed to command his area and still looks vulnerable.
Carvajal 6. Couldn’t get forward to his usual effect until injury time, when his well-placed cross found Aspas for the leveller.
Pique 5. Looked shaky in defence all night, appearing to struggle with concentration. Came close with a pair of headers from corners.
Ramos 4. Caught dozing on the halfway line for Morocco’s opener and beaten in the air by En-Nesyri for the winner. Concerning.
Alba 7. A tireless runner up and down the left wing, regularly combining well with Isco and enjoying a fierce tussle with Amrabat.
Thiago 6. Clever range of passing in midfield kept Spain’s passing ticking over in his first start, and his substitution was something of a surprise.
Busquets 5. Missed a golden chance with a free header and regularly looked vulnerable to Morocco’s swift counter-attacking.
Iniesta 6. At fault for Morocco’s goal but responded with a clinical assist for Isco. Sparkled in the first half but faded badly in the second.
Silva 5. A quiet game for the midfielder, who was on the fringes of the action and couldn’t offer threat inside the box.
Costa 5. Produced some clumsy touches in the first half and was barely involved in the second before being replaced.
Isco 8. Full of tricks, flicks, dribbles and passing, capping an excellent performance with a well-taken goal. Spain’s key man by far.
Aspas 7. Rescued his team with a neat flicked finish for a VAR-assisted goal which will be remembered with bitterness by Moroccan fans.
Asensio 6. Introduced onto the right wing but had hardly any impact except sending a near-post header well wide.
Rodrigo 6. Charged around with commitment in the latter stages after being brought on for Silva.
Munir 6. Didn’t have too many saves to make and couldn’t do anything with either Spain goal. Dealt with crosses well.
Dirar 6. Had a tough time up against the dual threat of Alba and Isco, but stuck to his task and got forward when he could.
Da Costa 7. Very solid in defence, enjoying much the better of his tussle with his namesake. Strong in the air.
Saiss 7. Made a superb goalline clearance to keep out Isco’s header among several more timely interventions in the danger area.
Hakimi 6. A relatively restrained performance from the Real Madrid man on the left flank, but dealt with Silva well.
El Ahmadi 7. Held things together on the edge of Morocco’s penalty area, holding his position wewll and keeping it simple in possession.
Boussoufa 7. The skipper linked midfield with attack well, but will remember the game for his heel playing Aspas onside.
Amrabat 7. Threatened down the right and denied a stunning goal with a long-range strike against the post, but walked a tightrope on a yellow card.
Belhanda 5. Couldn’t influence the game in the centre of midfield and was replaced just after the hour mark.
Ziyech 5. The winger is highly rated but was relatively quiet on this occasion, although his volley won the corner for the winner.
Boutaib 7. Took his opening goal well and could have scored again just after. Worked hard as the lone striker before being replaced.
Fayr 6. The first sub to appear, he had to do more defending than he’d like as Morocco tried to hold on.
En Nesyri 7. Malaga youngster appeared from the bench and thumped home a brilliant header for a memorable winner.
Boudebouz 6. Barely had a touch after coming on for the final stages.
France coach Didier Deschamps said his team will be going all out to win their final World Cup group game against Denmark as they look to wrap up first place.
Deschamps is expected to make several changes for the encounter with France guaranteed a spot in the last 16 following wins over Australia and Peru.
Denmark require just a point to join France in the knockout stages, and could even pip Les Bleus to top spot in Group C with a victory.
Here’s our video wrap of all the stats before the game at 18:00 (UAE Time) on Tuesday in Moscow.