KALININGRAD: Spain, courtesy of a double drama in the last minute, are heading for Moscow on Sunday to face hosts Russia in the knockout stage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
The 2010 world champions topped Group B after a remarkable turnaround in the last minutes of their 2-2 draw with Morocco in Kaliningrad — just as European title-holders Portugal were being hauled back to 1-1 by Iran in Saransk.
Spain, creative in attack but disorientated in defence, conceded an early goal to Morocco’s Khalid Boutaib but quickly levelled through Isco. Noureddine Amrabat hit the bar in the second half before Morocco regained the lead through a magnificent header from substitute Youssef En Nesyri.
At that point Spain were only just clinging on to second place in the group but, in the last minute, substitute Thiago Aspas equalised. At first referee Ravshan Irmatov ruled out the goal for offside but VAR persuaded him to change his mind to the fury of the homeward-bound Moroccans.
Spain thus won the group on goals scored from Portugal as they extended their unbeaten run to 23 games.
A mix-up between Andres Iniesta and Sergio Ramos had allowed Khalid Boutaib to stride through and give Morocco a surprise 14th-minute lead.
Iniesta made amends five minutes later by helping create a sublime equaliser, exchanging passes with Diego Costa and getting to the byeline before cutting back for Isco to steer high into the net.
But Spain looked wobbly in defence when pressed by a committed, aggressive Morocco side, with Boutaib denied by the legs of David de Gea after Hakim Ziyech’s quick throw sent him clear.
Nordin Amrabat was desperately unlucky not to score in the second half as his searing shot came back off the angle of post and bar with De Gea motionless.
Isco was denied a second goal when his header was diverted wide by Romain Saiss – playing instead of dropped captain Medhi Benatia – before the late drama.
Spain have been hit and miss at this World Cup – perhaps unsurprisingly, given the turbulence surrounding the pre-tournament sacking of coach Julen Lopetegui.
They were excellent in their opening game against Portugal – but had to settle for a 3-3 draw – and poor in their second match against Iran – but won 1-0.
In Kaliningrad, they dominated possession – having more than 75pc of the ball – and had 18 shots to Morocco’s six. However, they produced a performance that must still have concerned new coach Fernando Hierro.
The game’s first two goals were the clearest demonstration of Spain’s strange display. Iniesta’s loose return pass to Ramos was down to a lapse in concentration, allowing Morocco to take the lead, but his setting up of Isco’s equaliser was beautifully done.
Spain were defensively off-key whenever under pressure, with Gerard Pique lucky to escape punishment early on for a two-footed lunge towards Boutaib – saved by the fact that he did make contact with the ball – before he avoided sanction for a clear second-half handball on the edge of his own penalty area.
In Pique’s defence, he nearly made amends with a header that veered just wide, from an Isco corner, but they were grateful to Aspas for securing them first place in the group – and ensuring they avoided the dangerous Uruguay in the next round.
There has clearly been a lot of frustration building up in the Morocco camp and at times they were too aggressive – as a tally of six yellow cards showed, even if one or two of them were harsh.
However, their commitment made for an enthralling game in which they defended with great discipline and looked dangerous on the counter-attack.
Coach Herve Renard had complained before the game about refereeing decisions going against his team in their opening two games, and his players thought they had been on the wrong end of a decision when Aspas’ goal was allowed to stand.
Frustrations threatened to boil over in a chaotic end to the game, with a cluster of players being involved in a confrontation – although television evidence suggested that referee Irmatov did get it right by allowing the goal after consulting with the video assistant refereeing team.
Renard: “We suffered, as every team that plays against Spain suffers, because their line-up is a mix of Real Madrid and Barcelona players – all exceptional.
“But I think our players, the whole team, should be commended for this game and the entire World Cup.
“We’ve lacked a bit of experience and there were games we should have had better results in. But we’ve shown that we can take on two of the best teams in the world, Portugal and Spain, and represent Morocco well.”
Spain midfielder Isco: “Now we are facing the moment of truth but I have complete faith in this team. Morocco was a really tough match. Maybe we were lacking greater control of the game and normally that is what we do a lot better.”
Spain have not lost a fixture – competitive or friendly – since defeat by Italy at Euro 2016.