Caution had ruled the day at Saint Petersburg Stadium previously. But a free-kick deep into added time was ruinously headed home by the St. Pauli centre forward to hand Team Melli just their second-ever victory in the tournament.
Here are the Morocco player ratings:
Munir Mohamedi – 7: Stood up well to deny Sardar Azmoun’s one-on-one and Alireza Jahanbakhsh’s rebound at the end of a dour first half.
Nordin Amrabat – 6: Bombed on from right-back, but couldn’t deliver a quality cross. Taken off with concussion for his younger brother, Sofyan.
Mehdi Benatia – 5: Regularly charged out of defence to try and spark counter-attacking opportunities. This, however, all too often caused danger.
Romain Saiss – 6: Precious little to do as Iran went for a cagey approach.
Achraf Hakimi – 5: The Real Madrid right-back continued at left-back for his country. Only produced one cross.
Karim El Ahmadi – 6: Killed one promising counter-attack for Iran with a wily foul. Otherwise, tried to recycle possession.
Mbark Boussoufa – 6: Had evidently been told to pump balls into the channels. Has shown he can be much more than this at Al Jazira – and beyond.
Hakim Ziyech – 6: Forced one great save from Iran shot stopper Alireza Beiranvand. Yet, he flitted between deep positions out wide where he couldn’t truly hurt Iran. What a waste of an assist machine.
Younes Belhanda – 5: Another victim of Renard’s tactics. Much more was expected of the 28-year-old Galatasaray creator.
Amine Harit – 6: Ballooned an excellent early chance in the second half. Tried to inject pace with his dribbling.
Ayoub El Kaabi – 4: The only outfield player in Morocco’s squad employed in the local Botola league appeared far too raw for this rarefied level and was hooked.
Sofyan Amrabat – N/A: The Feyenoord man slotted in for his stunned sibling at right-back.
Aziz Bouhaddouz – N/A: A substitution of huge consequence. Stretched too far to repel a free-kick and could only flick it into his own net.
Manuel da Costa – N/A: İstanbul Basaksehir defender was brought on near the end to allow Ziyech to push up. Plan didn’t work out.
This Group C-clash will pit two intriguing teams against each other, brimming with exciting talent. With France expected to run away with first place, this game – between nations that progressed through the play-offs – should be a key battle towards deciding who will finish behind them.
Here are the talking points:
GARECA IS A GIFT TO THE WORLD CUP
Millions of uninitiated football fans from across the globe are about to fall in love.
Peru are a nation rich in footballing history, who’ve gone under the radar during 36 years away from the World Cup. Their time in the shadows has been ended by head coach Ricardo Gareca – and in some style, too.
The beloved former Argentine striker – twice a target for the UAE last year – has twinned the warrior spirit redolent of his ‘Tigre’ nickname with a devotion to the maxims of the ‘Beautiful Game’. Spectacular goals have followed, with emerging Aalborg winger Edison Flores’ strike in March’s impressive 2-0 victory against Croatia leading the way.
Sao Paulo playmaker Christian Cueva dropped deep to exchange passes under pressure with the centre-backs, before Watford forward Andre Carillo quickened the pace with a delightful back-heel.
Left-back Miguel Trauco then raced into centre midfield and swept a perfect pass behind the hypnotised Croatia centre-backs. Veteran forward Jefferson Farfan burst into the space and cut back for Flores to tap-in one of 2018’s best goals.
Repeat the trick in Russia and it won’t just be Peru’s iconic kit that attracts the neutrals.
ERIKSEN’S TIME TO SHINE
Michael Laudrup might not have been present for Denmark’s finest hour, but there is no doubting his standing within the game.
Few playmakers have reached the level of technical mastery present when he pressed the ignition switch for Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ at Barcelona from 1989-94.
This legacy, however, remains diminished at national level by his no-show for Euro 1992’s shock victory. An opening that Tottenham Hotspur’s Christian Eriksen could take advantage of.
Eriksen was the shining light for club – some achievement with England captain Harry Kane present – and country in the previous season. A career-best tally of 14 goals during 46 matches in all competitions showcased his increased lethality, while the hat-trick against the Republic of Ireland in November’s play-offs was a joy to behold.
Group C presents plentiful opportunity for further personal glory. Peru’s 26 goals conceded was the most within CONMEBOL qualifying’s top five, while only during March were four goals let in by Australia against fellow Scandinavians Norway.
Spurs club-mate Hugo Lloris has also shown signs of fallibility in goal during recent months.
Inspire a surge to top spot in Group C and the competitions becomes wide open for Denmark.
Laudrup should expect company in Denmark’s Pantheon.
SOMETHING HAS TO GIVE?
You have to go back until winter 2016 for either Peru or Denmark to taste defeat in a FIFA-sanctioned match.
This durability – 15 unbeaten fixtures apiece – points to both the courage instilled in the South Americans by Gareca and the efficacy of the aggressive, direct game plan that has seen Norwegian head coach Age Hareide light the fuse under ‘Danish Dynamite’.
The question now is whether Mordovia Arena will witness a cagey opener upon which both sides look to protect their infallible runs, or they instead boast the confidence to push on for a momentum-building early result?
The characters on show seem to fit the latter scenario. Peru are emboldened by the freezing of record goal scorer Paolo Guerrero’s 14-month ban for a failed drugs test caused by drinking contaminated tea, with Flores, Cueva and Farfan sure to provide excellent ammunition.
Hareide has based his reign on bringing the best out of Eriksen. A tally of 15 goals from him in 19 matches speaks volumes.
This is even without counting on a support cast that includes proficient Feyenoord centre forward Nicolai Jorgensen and towering RB Leipzig forward Yussuf Poulsen.
With such talents on show, you’d hope attacking football reigns supreme.
This Group C-clash will pit two intriguing teams against each other, brimming with exciting talent.
Here are some of the key men who will decide this meeting:
JEFFERSON FARFAN V CHRISTIAN ERIKSEN
Farfan has experienced a remarkable turnaround in fortunes since October 2016’s release from Al Jazira after making just 18 appearances during an injury-ravaged spell. Since then, the forward’s class of old from his spells at PSV Eindhoven and Schalke has shone through.
The 33-year-old’s 10 goals at Lokomotiv Moscow helped earn a surprise 2017/18 Russian Premier League crown, while a recall to the national team nudged Peru towards a return to the World Cup for the first time since 1982.
Playmaker Eriksen comes into the tournament after a career-best season at Tottenham that contained 10 assists and 10 goals in the Premier League. November’s iridescent hat-trick in the play-offs against Republic of Ireland saw parallels to the fabled Laudrup brothers increase.
Both men will now look to pull the strings in Saransk. Whomever gets the upper hand should define this match.
PAOLO GUERRERO V ANDREAS CHRISTENSEN
Guerrero’s route to World Cup 2018 has been highly unorthodox. It has featured December’s failed drugs test caused by drinking contaminated tea, FIFA’s subsequent year-long ban and a route through various courts that sees his suspension frozen until after the tournament.
The belated presence of Peru’s 34-goal record scorer is key to hopes of progression. No-one else in head coach Ricardo Gareca’s ranks can match the skill set of the controversial 34-year-old Flamengo centre forward.
Opposing him this weekend will be Chelsea’s Christiansen.
2017/18 was a school of hard knocks for the stylish 22-year-old. Back at Stamford Bridge after two seasons on loan at Borussia Monchengladbach, he made 40 appearances in all competitions.
But high-profile mistakes against Barcelona and Manchester City counted against him. A repeat in Russia will not be tolerated by boss Age Hareide.
ALBERTO RODRIGUEZ V NICOLAI JORGENSEN
Rodriguez has been a rock for Peru, during more than 70 international appearances.
But there is a sense now that the granite 34-year-old’s power is gradually being chipped away by a long line of draining injuries. It is now up to the Los Incas centre-back to prove his strength endures, starting with a scrap versus Feyenoord marksman Jorgensen.
The tall 27-year-old was a January target for Newcastle United and offers a focal point for an exciting attack. Preventing his link play with the likes of Eriksen and Celta Vigo assist machine Pione Sisto is key to Peru hopes.
He will know that strong displays in Russia could see Feyenoord presented with a sizeable offer that, this time, they cannot refuse.