The crucial early tournament game was winding towards a thoroughly dull ending. Morocco and Iran were both desperate to win and put themselves in a decent position to progress from a difficult group, but their clash, while dramatic, had descended into a bizarre mire of delays. In 95 minutes of football, neither side had scored, and neither side had looked like scoring for some time. A 0-0 draw looked likely. Enter Aziz Bouhaddouz. The striker came on as a substitute late in the second half, and from a late free-kick he gracefully dived forward and headed the ball into the bottom corner. It was a perfect diving header. Unfortunately for Bouhaddouz and Morocco, he did it at the wrong end of the field. By the final whistle a minute later, his well-intentioned defensive clearance gone wrong was the difference, and a fitting end to a very odd encounter.
Morocco shot out of the blocks, and their high-tempo passing game put the Iranians on the back foot from the word go. Iran never had a chance to get settled, as Hakim Ziyech orchestrated the attack with his clever playmaking and Nordin Amrabat put in very threatening crosses from the right wing. With the pace of Amine Harit thrown into the equation, the Atlas Lions looked too good by a long way, and it seemed a matter of time before they broke through. With nearly 20 minutes gone, a chaos ball into the box allowed four Moroccans the chance to score – in the space of seconds. Somehow, goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand and his desperate defence withstood the barrage, repelling everything, and with every passing minute Iran gained a firmer foothold in the match.Embed from Getty Images
Iranian players celebrate after their victory over Morocco. The win was sealed by a fortuitous 95th minute own goal, and Iran weren’t the better team on the day.
With Morocco’s attempts to blow them out of the water beginning to falter, Iran went on the counter-attack, continuing to concede the lion’s share of possession but finding some speed on the break. Benatia and Saïss mostly held firm in the Moroccan defence, but the tide had begun to turn. At one point Karim El Ahmadi was forced into a professional foul that was so blatant that trigger-happy referee Cüneyt Çakır seemingly had his yellow card out before the offence was completed. Morocco continued to push going the other way, but they were nowhere near as threatening as before and they struggled with an opponent capable of punishing them at the other end. As the half drew to a close, Sardar Azmoun had a brilliant chance to put his side in front, but Munir El Kajoui was up to the task, pulling off two reflex saves and maintaining the deadlock.
Unlike the first half, where Morocco started with pace and skill and put the Iranians on the back foot, the second half began more evenly. Play soon settled into a fairly mundane pattern, with plenty of physicality in the contest and neither side really looking like breaking through. Then it just became a bizarre spectacle of fouls, injuries and mediocre attacking play, with Çakır seemingly the busiest man on the field as he darted in to defuse situation after situation.
Nordin Amrabat was the first man to join the casualty list after he hit the Krestovsky Stadium turf hard and got up groggily. Water was promptly sprayed in his face, but the slightly bizarre treatment didn’t seem to work and he was shortly replaced by his brother Sofyan. Next, Iran’s Omid Ebrahimi decided the pain of an earlier rib injury was too great, and soon they were joined on the bench by Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who appeared to go down with a simple case of cramp but was soon being taken off in a stretcher. Jahanbakhsh’s replacement, Saman Ghoddos, had committed a pair of fouls within minutes of entering the fray, and soon tensions were flaring on the benches. A clash between coaches Hervé Renard and Carlos Queiroz (whose brooding stare was rather intimidating) just added to the bizarre incidents of the day. In spite of it all, Ziyech provided the only real chance of the half with an excellent volley which was brilliantly parried by Beiranvand. It was a rare touch of class in an otherwise unedifying spectacle.Embed from Getty Images
The benches of Iran and Morocco clash during the latter stages of the match. There was plenty of tension throughout, largely due to the importance of the fixture and the physicality of the game.
Bouhaddouz’s own goal, with too little time remaining for the Atlas Lions to recoup the deficit, settled the matter in Iran’s favour, but it was hardly a conclusive victory in a game that neither team deserved to win. Realistically, Morocco’s chances aren’t great following their heartbreaking defeat, and Iran will need to improve big time if they are to take advantage of a very fortunate win. It was ugly, at times comical and won in injury time by a team who didn’t have a shot in the second half. What more could you want?
Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
Iran 1 (Bouhaddouz 90+5 og)
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır (Tur)
Morocco (3-4-3): Munir El Kajoui – Hakimi, Benatia, Saïss; Boussoufa, Ziyech, El Ahmadi, Harit (da Costa 82); N Amrabat (S Amrabat 76), El Kaabi (Bouhaddouz 77), Belhanda.
Iran (3-4-3): Beiranvand – Ramin Rezaeian, Cheshmi, Pouraliganji; Ansarifard, Omid Ebrahimi (Montazeri 79), Hajsafi, Shojaei (Mehdi Taremi 68); Jahanbakhsh (Ghoddos 85), Sardar Azmoun, Amiri.
1. Hakim Ziyech (Morocco)
Ziyech may have ended up on the losing side, but he was a class above everyone else on the field. His creative instincts were excellent, and he picked out incisive passes while simultaneously working his way into dangerous positions. His low volley was only just thwarted by Beiranvand in the Iranian goal, and could have easily found its way into the back of the net.
2. Alireza Beiranvand (Iran)
Beiranvand kept Iran in it with a series of excellent saves as they battled to keep pace with the Moroccans. He showed good composure under pressure, and his diving save to prevent Ziyech’s volley from finding the bottom corner kept Iran in the match. Without him, there is no way that they would have come away with the victory.
3. Nordin Amrabat (Morocco)
Before he left the field with what looked like a concussion Amrabat was among the best players on the field, making plenty of raids down the right flank and putting in dangerous crosses with either foot. In addition to his attacking exploits he played an important defensive role for the Atlas Lions, and his injury was a major blow to their chances.
4. Ehsan Hajsafi (Iran)
Hajsafi worked hard in midfield all day, and he was rewarded when his free-kick was inadvertently headed home by Bouhaddouz. He played an important defensive role, and was critical in repelling some of Morocco’s best attacks. His long throws also provided Iran with a fairly potent attacking weapon, rounding out a fairly solid match.
5. Medhi Benatia (Morocco)
Benatia led from the front at the heart of Morocco’s defence, winning most aerial duels he was involved in and providing a solid base which allowed the Atlas Lions to put pressure on the Iranian defence. He fought hard all day, and he showed how valuable he is to this Moroccan side.