Spain sealed first place in Group B in the most dramatic of circumstances, with a stoppage time leveller from Iago Aspas dovetailing with Iran’s similarly late penalty against Portugal to make the Iberian neighbours switch positions at the head of the group.
Despite finishing first, however, there are plenty of concerns for Fernando Hierro’s men after a performance that was anything but convincing.
Here we have the main talking points from a thrilling night in Kaliningrad.
Spain escape again
This World Cup has been anything but quiet for Spain.
After entering into the campaign on the back of a shock managerial axing with Julen Lopetegui fired two days before the start of the tournament, they dropped two points to a late stunner from Cristiano Ronaldo, then squeezed past Iran with a fluke goal from Diego Costa and now needed a late, late equaliser from Iago Aspas to grab a point against Morocco.
The goal was hugely controversial as Aspas met Dani Carvajal’s cross with a clever flick to score, only for the offside flag to be raised. Referee Ravshan Irmatov rightly called for a VAR review, which showed that Aspas was played fractionally onside by the heel of Morocco captain Mbark Boussoufa, and to the fury of the African side the goal was allowed to stand.
It was also hugely important, because the point was enough to give Spain first place in the group ahead of Portugal by virtue of goals scored. That means La Roja will now face unfancied hosts Russia in the last 16, while Portugal face a much tougher task as they take on dangerous Uruguay.
Having said that, judging by their progress so far Spain will find a way to make their meeting with Russia in Moscow on Sunday far more eventful than anyone might expect.
Hierro slow to react
One of the substitutions made by Fernando Hierro paid dividends in the end, with Aspas coming off the bench to score the crucial late equaliser. But the manner in which the interim boss made his changes – and managed the match in general – leaves plenty of question marks over his abilities to make quick enough adjustments from the sidelines.
Early in the second half it was clear that Spain were struggling. They had lost the penetration they provided in the opening period as Diego Costa struggled to have any involvement, Andres Iniesta faded rapidly and David Silva endured a rare off night.
But Hierro failed to react, not making any substitutions until the 74th minute, by which time Morocco had gathered confidence and soon went ahead. In the end Spain got lucky but Iniesta was clearly exhausted, Marco Asensio had no impact, and Isco became less significant after being moved wider. Against the big boys later in the tournament if Spain progress that far, they will be punished more heavily.
Fragile at the back
In addition to struggling to sustain attacking rhythm, Spain also struggled defensively. Sergio Ramos and Iniesta conspired to gift the opening goal to grateful Morocco striker Khalid Boutaib, who then nearly grabbed a second after Ramos and his defensive partner Gerard Pique both fell asleep from a throw in.
By then, Pique should probably have already been sent off the pitch after throwing himself into a wild two-footed lunge on Boutaib which strangely went unpunished, and the highly questionable decision making of both Ramos and Pique throughout the game was on full display when they both attempted ridiculously ambitious long-range shots which flew miles off target.
David De Gea also continues to look a worry, appearing to have been stuck onto his line with super glue and offering absolutely no command of his penalty area, while Sergio Busquets was occasionally outnumbered and overrun by Morocco’s aggressive midfield.
Overall, with five goals conceded in three games, Spain’s defence is anything but impressive, and must tighten up if they want to seriously challenge.
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Cometh the hour, cometh Ricardo Quaresma. That seems to be the 34-year-old’s mantra with Portugal at big tournaments.
The oft-infuriating Besiktas winger has been at big clubs in his career, yet never fulfills his promise.
But he shines on the big stage internationally, as evidenced with seismic contributions against Croatia and Poland during Euro 2016’s knockouts. He added to his big-game reputation at the World Cup, putting Portugal ahead with an absolute beauty.
Here we take a closer look at his performance.
It doesn’t happen too often, especially for his nation who he leads in both caps and goals, but occasionally Cristiano Ronaldo is less than his brilliant best, like he was against Iran.
When that does occur, it’s important for someone else to step up to the mark. Not many are able to eclipse Ronaldo, but Quaresma has previous form. With Ronaldo shackled and out of sorts, it was another veteran who rolled back the years with a simply staggering outside-of-the-right-boot curler.
AUDACITY – He stands out a mile with his heavily tattooed body and often-outlandish hairstyles, and if we all flash with no follow-up you could try and cut him down to size.
But his outgoing persona is matched by incredible poise and flair on the field, epitomised by his stunning effort in Saransk. He sparked the move and then finished it thrillingly, sumptuously curling his effort beyond the reach of even giant 6ft 4in Iran stopper Alireza Beiranvand.
INACTIVITY – Match-winner he may be but Quaresma looked every one of his 34 years and showed why Fernando Santos had yet to give him a start. A tremendously gifted player technically, even if it’s at the expense of hard work.
He had just 50 touches – the joint second fewest among Portugal’s outfield players, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo. But while Ronaldo is always looking to contribute, Quaresma stayed in the shadows.
He was also wasteful in dangerous situations, irresponsibly thrusting 11 crosses into the box, to little effect. Made just 25 passes – only goalkeeper Rui Patricio had fewer.
So often a controversial figure throughout a nomadic career, but there can be no doubting Quaresma’s penchance for being Portugal’s man for the main occasion.
Scorer of match-winning goals in their last 16 and quarter-final games en route to the European Championship-crown two summers ago, he again stepped up brilliantly here.
There’s been a lot of talk about Portugal’s new generation at this tournament, but it was one of the veteran statesmen who came up with the goods and surely one of the goals of the World Cup.
All statistics are compiled using whoscored.com
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.