So, after all the drama and controversy, Spain are exactly where we expected them to be: through to the last 16 as group winners.
But don’t be fooled by that raw fact, because Monday night’s game against Morocco showed that this team is in trouble.
There are concerns throughout the team, including the identity of the starting striker after a series of hit or miss performances from Diego Costa and the question of how interim coach Fernando Hierro should configure his gloriously talented midfield.
But by far the biggest weakness so far has been the defence, with the five goals shipped in the group stages meaning there’s every chance that Spain will head into the next stage having conceded more goals than any other surviving team.
They have been conceding all sorts of goals, too: a penalty, a shot from the edge of the box, a direct free-kick, a breakaway from the halfway line, a header from a corner …you name it, Spain are vulnerable in every area.
And that all starts with the goalkeeper, David De Gea, whose place in the side is coming into serious question following another worrying performance against Morocco.
Some of the criticism of the Manchester United man currently being bandied around in Spain is unjustified: he could have done nothing, for example, about the brilliant header netted by Youssef En-Nesyri for Morocco – it was too far away for him to come off his line, and the header was planted right into the corner.
But it’s impossible to escape the underlying feeling that De Gea just does not look right, and does not transmit confidence to the rest of the team.
A couple of moments from the Morocco game capture that sentiment. Firstly, shortly before half-time Morocco striker Khalid Boutaib took advantage of Spain sleeping at a throw-in to race clear, one on one against the goalkeeper. De Gea actually made a save (his first of the tournament), but the manner in which he did it owed a lot to fortune as he stayed rooted to his line and needed a heavy touch from the striker to eventually stop the shot, still inside his six-yard box.
Later, near the end of the game, a cross into the box should have been meat and drink for the goalkeeper, but De Gea was slow to react and eventually had to take desperate measures, diving awkwardly to deflect the ball away with his forearm in an ugly-looking and unconventional manoeuvre.
Those two incidents summed up De Gea’s great weakness: he is extremely reluctant to come off his line, and when he does it generally leads to a heart-in-mouth moment.
Playing for Spain, this is a major problem. Unlike his club side, De Gea’s national team holds a high defensive line, pushing up the pitch to pin the opposition deep inside their own half. That leaves the goalkeeper with 40 yards of green space in front of him, requiring him to be comfortable and confident in that area.
De Gea cannot do that, and there, perhaps, lies the source of the unease which is flowing palpably throughout the Spanish defensive ranks.
So should he be dropped? In reality, probably not due to a lack of viable alternatives. The squad’s other goalkeepers are Athletic Bilbao’s Kepa Arrizabalaga, who only has one cap, and veteran Pepe Reina, who has played just one competitive international game in four years.
Introducing an unknown quantity would be a massive risk for Hierro – probably a greater risk than leaving in De Gea. But on current form, the keeper is looking like a disaster waiting to happen.
Isco has demanded his Spain side improve after dramatically avoiding a shock defeat to Morocco in their final group stage game at the World Cup.
The Real Madrid playmaker scored Spain’s first equaliser as the 2010 champions twice came from behind in a 2-2 draw, but he was more concerned about how easily he and his teammates have been giving goals away at the tournament.
Spain’s chaotic tie against Morocco came after a 3-3 draw with Portugal in their opener, and their defensive frailties have been laid bare in those two matches – a worry considering they were thought to be one of the favourites to lift the trophy.
“Again we started a bit doubtful, we couldn’t get going,” Isco said.
“From now on games are life or death. We can’t keep giving goals away, we have to focus.
“We are lacking what we know best, controlling games and having the ball.
“We have to put the batteries in, any rival team would send us home.”
Morocco, who had already been eliminated from the tournament and had nothing to play for against Spain, were accused of going in too hard in what was a fiercely contested clash, but Isco brushed aside those complaints.
“That’s football, they did their job and were professional,” he said.”They tackled hard like anyone, we can’t complain.”
Spain topped their group thanks to their dramatic late equaliser on Monday, setting up a tie against hosts Russia in the last 16 on Sunday.
Russia were the lowest-ranked team going into the tournament, but have been galvanised by the home support, and Isco says Spain will not be taking them lightly.
“We know it will be hard against the hosts, who are having a fantastic tournament,” he added.
Iceland and Croatia face off at the World Cup on Tuesday with the former’s hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages hanging by a thread.
A win may not be enough for them, whereas Croatia’s players can approach the game in a relaxed manner having already qualified.
Here are the key players who could tilt the tie.
Gylfi Sigurdsson v Andrej Kramaric
Sigurdsson will carry all of Iceland’s hopes on his shoulders, and even if they are the least populous country at the World Cup, that’s a heavy burden, especially as he hasn’t been at his sparkling best so far. Iceland have always emphasised the importance of the collective, but they do have a star player. He needs to deliver a win on Tuesday.
Andrej Kramaric was dropped from the starting XI for Croatia’s win over Argentina, but he’ll likely earn a recall on Tuesday with manager Zlatko Dalic expected to rest some of his star players. His combined five goals and assists during qualifying were joint-top for Croatia. The former Leicester City man is a reliable scorer but also a handy creator of goals, much like Sigurdsson.
Aron Gunnarsson v Mateo Kovacic
Iceland’s inspirational captain will want to deliver a trademark all-action performance to lead his side into the knockout stages on Tuesday. At his best Gunnarsson can be everywhere on the pitch, delivering telling crosses, driving forward from the centre, and helping his defence whenever needed. He was strangely quiet against Nigeria, and he’ll want to make amends.
Mateo Kovacic has endured a frustrating World Cup, much like his club season with Real Madrid. When Dalic opted for only two central midfielders against Nigeria, it was obvious Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric would get the nod, but seeing Marcelo Brozovic picked ahead of him as a third midfielder against Argentina must have been disheartening. With Croatia likely to rotate, this will be Kovacic’s chance to shine.
Ragnar Sigurdsson v Dejan Lovren
Ragnar Sigurdsson is a typical warrior-like Icelandic defender, and against Nigeria he showed how he’s earned that tag as he played on after suffering a serious-looking blow to the head. He’s a doubt for this crucial clash, but Iceland will hope he’s fit to play. At his best he’s the sort of vocal, commanding leader every defence needs.
Dejan Lovren’s form has improved leaps and bounds since the turn of the year, and although at club level that was put down to the arrival of Dutchman Virgil Van Dijk at Liverpool, he’s replicated that form for Croatia over the last two games. The assured performance he put up against Lionel Messi and Argentina was one the best displays of his career.