After opening their World Cup campaign with a dramatic 3-3 draw against Portugal which was encouraging and frustrating in equal measure, Spain are looking to secure their first victory against an Iran team which is the surprise early group leader.
Here are the three main talking points ahead of Wednesday night’s showdown in Kazan.
Carvajal to displace Nacho
If Cristiano Ronaldo hadn’t intervened with a sensational and already iconic free-kick to give Portugal a point in the opener, Spain’s match-winning hero would have been the unlikely figure of utility man Nacho Fernandez.
The Real Madrid defender was only playing because his club-mate and first-choice right-back Dani Carvajal was injured, but he came close to writing himself into World Cup history by thrashing home a spectacular half-volley from the edge of the box to give Spain a 3-2 lead.
In the end Ronaldo’s heroics ensured that Nacho’s strike will go down as one of the tournament’s great forgotten goals, but it also gave fresh life to the question of whether Carvajal will slot straight back into the starting line-up.
In truth, Carvajal should still play if – as expected – he is now fully recovered from the thigh injury sustained in the Champions League Final: he is a much better all-round presence than Nacho, who should not be handed a prolonged place in the team thanks to an isolated spectacular moment – especially as he was also culpable for Portugal’s opener after conceding a penalty with a needless foul on Ronaldo.
But if there’s any lingering doubt over Carvajal’s fitness, boss Fernando Hierro will surely take no risks and Nacho will stay in.
Will Dave save?
The suggestion that David de Gea is close to being dropped from Spain’s starting line-up might appear ridiculous to anyone who has watched the keeper’s consistently outstanding performances for Manchester United over the past few years.
But the shot-stopper has failed to live up to his ‘Dave Saves’ mantle by committing a series of shocking blunders for Spain in recent weeks, including a dreadful error to gift Ronaldo his second goal of the game in Friday’s opener.
Following similar mistakes in friendly meetings with Switzerland and Argentina, de Gea has now made major mistakes in three of his last four international outings, leading some fans to outlandishly claim that 37 year-old former captain Iker Casillas should still be number one.
Emergency boss Hierro has forcefully stated his unwavering support for the struggling keeper and, for now, de Gea’s place in the team is safe – partly due to a lack of serious alternatives as the squad’s other two goalkeepers are Athletic Bilbao’s Kepa Arrizabalaga, who has only won one cap to date, and 35 year-old Pepe Reina, who has only made one competitive appearance for his country in four years.
So de Gea will start, but he absolutely cannot afford another howler if he wants to prevent the calls for his benching from growing louder and ever more insistent.
Can Iran’s defence hold firm?
Spain are overwhelming favourites to take all three points from the game, but Iran’s defensive record could ensure their task in Kazan is far more complicated than the bookmakers are suggesting.
The team coached by former Real Madrid and Portugal boss Carlos Queiroz are proudly sitting at the top of the group after kicking off with a last-gasp 1-0 victory over Morocco, and watching them keep a clean sheet was no surprise after a qualification campaign which saw them concede just five goals in 18 games.
That included a pair of clean sheets against South Korea in a remarkable run without allowing a single goal over the course of 12 games and 21 months.
Queiroz’s men were similarly obdurate in their last World Cup outing, coming within seconds of claiming a famous point against Argentina four years ago before Lionel Messi conjured a brilliant late winner. This time, they’ll be determined to go one better.
Morroco coach Herve Renard has admitted that he is struggling for a plan to contain Cristiano Ronaldo.
The in-form striker scored the 51st hat-trick of his career as Portugal and Spain played out a 3-3 draw in their opening group game at the World Cup.
Morocco, who lost 1-0 to Iran after a 95th-minute own goal, face an early exit in their first finals appearance since 1998 unless they avoid defeat against the European champions on Wednesday.
He told L’Equipe: “Those who try to mount a plan against him, he always manages to find something to make the difference.
“He’s an exceptional player. The word may not even be strong enough, but we must do everything to make it less exceptional.
“If we put three (players) on Ronaldo, they have so much offensive quality.
“If it only happens once in our lives to play Cristiano Ronaldo, you have to be the best you can.”
Mohamed Salah‘s exceptional season is set to come to an agonising end after hosts Russia all but extinguished Egypt’s World Cup hopes.
A dream first season at Liverpool helped establish the 26-year-old as one of the star names at these finals, with expectations heightened as his country strutted out on the global stage for the first time since 1990.
But the shoulder injury sustained in the Reds’ Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid derailed preparations, meaning Salah was reduced to a watching brief as Group A started with a late defeat to Uruguay.
That loss was compounded emphatically as the forward started in St Petersburg, where his penalty was only a consolation as Egypt lost 3-1 to Russia.
“I think that nobody can deny or argue Mo Salah’s importance in the Egypt national team,” Egypt head coach Hector Cuper said after a loss that leaves them facing a group-stage exit.
“What would have happened if he’d been on top form in both matches? Well, that’s very hard to say now.
“But I think that he would have given us all his quality and his ability.
“Mo Salah was feeling good to play today.
“You’ve seen him on the pitch, he was in good shape and nobody can argue that he isn’t extremely important to the team.
“But I always say behind a player or two brilliant players, there has to be a team and I feel proud because I’ve had a team.
“Perhaps we weren’t decisive enough, perhaps we lacked that little extra thing to get there, but I must recognise the great effort that they have done after 28 years where Egypt had not taken part in a World Cup.”
Egypt will be knocked out if Uruguay avoid defeat against Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, with their seemingly imminent exit leading Cuper to come under immediate pressure.
“First of all, whether or should I say in my post or not is something that does not only depend on me,” the Argentinian said after Ahmed Fathi’s own goal was compounded by Denis Cheryshev and Artem Dzyuba efforts.
“If those responsible are not happy with what I have done then I will be the first to leave. There’s no doubt about that.
“But we still have another match to play.
“It is difficult to say this but in the World Cup you have to wait until the very last minute, although it’s true that our chances are minimal.”