Spain toil hard to edge out determined Iranians

Euphoria. That was what Iran felt when Saeid Ezatolahi bundled a poorly defended free-kick into the bottom corner. Thanks to Spain’s errors, they had erased the one-goal lead their more skilled opponents had toiled so hard for, and they were suddenly in with a chance of shocking the Spanish and snatching a point to reinforce their opening game win over Morocco. Spain, meanwhile, couldn’t believe that after dominating possession and spending over half the game breaking through a determined Iranian defence, they had just lost the lead they had worked so hard for. Then, mere seconds after the euphoria of scoring, came despair. Ezatolahi was offside. The goal didn’t count. Thanks to the new video assistant referee, Spain’s lead was intact and Iran had to fight for another opening. They couldn’t find one.

The game started as expected, for the most part. Iran were named in a conventional 4-2-3-1 formation, but the team that took the field lined up with a six man defence and everyone else aiding the defensive effort. Generously, it could have been called a counter-attacking strategy. Realistically, Carlos Queiroz’s side was just parking the bus. Spain, on the other hand, did exactly what was expected of them. They took the free possession on offer, and kept passing it around in an attempt to break down their opponents. The only part that didn’t go to script was the scoreline. Spain were meant to clinically cut their way through their opponents, finding the back of the net at will. Instead, they found a very determined defensive front who were willing to fight for everything. As a result, the game settled into a pattern that was as repetitive as the mindless droning noise of the vuvuzelas blown by the Iranian fans. Spain would pass the ball around with impunity, but Iran would throw multiple defenders at them if they got too close.

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Morteza Pouraliganji (left) battles to keep the ball under pressure from Diego Costa. Pouraliganji had a great game and mostly kept Costa quiet, but the Spanish striker still found the scoresheet.

There were some chances, of course, but not enough to cause Iran too much stress. David Silva got close on a few occasions, blasting an athletic attempt at a set piece over the bar and watching as one of his free-kicks rebounded off the wall but didn’t deviate from its course. With the half winding down, he managed to find some space in the box, but his dangerous looking shot was blocked by the outstretched leg of Morteza Pouraliganji. At the other end, Iran gave under-fire Spanish keeper David de Gea very little to do, although they did have a great chance when Vahid Amiri was played through and had acres of space on the right wing. Unfortunately for Iran, Amiri seemed too surprised when he found himself onside in the box to actually do anything meaningful, and a tentative cross evaded everyone and went out of bounds.

Spain continued in their attempt to break down the Iranians as the second half started, and they had a couple of encouraging chances shortly after resumption. Gerard Piqué nearly found the back of the net after Isco’s dangerous corner, but there were plenty of Iranian defenders around to ensure it didn’t go in. Sergio Busquets created more problems less than a minute later, forcing Alireza Beiranvand to make an excellent save before Lucas Vázquez, following in at pace, forced the Iranian keeper to bat it away. A rare attacking foray from Iran saw Karim Ansarifard receive the ball from a long throw and drill it into the side netting, and the game was just beginning to open up a little. Not long after Iran’s near miss, Spain took the lead.

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A scrum forms on the Iranian goal line as Diego Costa (right) attempts to force the ball into the back of the net. The bizarre moment was indicative of Iran’s determination to prevent Spain from scoring.

The goal was created by Andrés Iniesta’s brilliance, and a large dose of good luck. Iniesta is almost certainly playing his last World Cup, and he can’t really play out a full game in the Spanish midfield. At the conclusion of this tournament, he will move to Japan to begin the next phase of his career. With Spain struggling to break down a determined Iranian defence, Iniesta made something happen. He picked up the ball in midfield, and started to run at the Iranian defence while firing a pass to Silva. He sprinted to receive Silva’s follow-up ball, and when a defender stood in his way he beat him without breaking a sweat. His second pass found Diego Costa in the box, and the striker spun out of trouble and looked to shoot. He never really got a shot off, with Ramin Rezaeian putting a tackle in before he could get his boot to it, but he scored anyway. Rezaeian’s tackle rebounded into Costa’s knee, and the ricochet shot past Beiranvand into the back of the net. It was a fluke, but that was of little concern to the Spanish.

Apart from Ezatolahi’s disallowed goal, the Iranians never really looked like getting the equaliser, with Spain still controlling possession and having most of the chances. Bizarre scenes ensued when Spain took a cleverly worked out corner and Sergio Ramos’ mishit shot bobbled dangerously towards the goal line, before Rezaeian lay on the goal line to stop Piqué from tapping it in. When Ezatolahi and Costa also got involved and Beiranvand tried to wrestle the ball out, a scrum developed on the Iranian goal line with the ball trapped underneath. Eventually Iran survived, but just holding on wasn’t enough. They needed to chase the game, and Mehdi Taremi had a great chance when Amiri nutmegged Piqué and sent in a brilliant cross to the dynamic forward. The header missed, and Iran’s last real opportunity went begging. Spain were still controlling possession when the final whistle sounded, happy to come away with a hard fought 1-0 win.

Kazan – Kazan Arena
Iran 0
Spain 1 (Diego Costa 54)
Referee: Andrés Cunha (Uru)
Iran (4-2-3-1): Beiranvand – Ramin Rezaeian, Hosseini, Pouraliganji, Hajsafi (Milad Mohammadi 69); Omid Ebrahimi, Ezatolahi; Ansarifard (Jahanbakhsh 74), Mehdi Taremi, Amiri (Ghoddos 86); Azmoun.
Spain (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Carvajal, Piqué, Ramos, Jordi Alba; Busquets, Iniesta (Koke 71); Silva, Isco, Lucas Vázquez (Asensio 80); Diego Costa (Rodrigo 89).

Top 5
1. Saeid Ezatolahi (Iran)
Ezatolahi was named as a defensive midfielder, but he spent the majority of the game playing as a third centre-back while Iran desperately repelled Spain’s attacks. He excelled in the role. He was a strong presence in the air and he denied Spain at crucial moments. He nearly levelled the game, but his goal was disallowed after he unluckily found himself offside.
2. Andrés Iniesta (Spain)
Iniesta didn’t play out the full 90 minutes, and he didn’t find himself on the ball as much as some of his teammates. He was, however, the man who finally drove a wedge through Iran’s disciplined defensive unit, needing to lay just two passes to set up Costa for Spain’s opening goal. He knows how to make things happen.
3. David Silva (Spain)
Silva was in excellent touch, controlling most of Spain’s attacking play and creating chances for himself and others. His set piece delivery was dangerous, as was a combination with Isco that continues to put Spain’s opponents under immense pressure. His good form bodes well for games to come.
4. Morteza Pouraliganji (Iran)
Late in the first half, Silva had an opportunity to put Spain ahead, and his shot looked destined to challenge Beiranvand. The only hitch? Pouraliganji’s outstretched leg. That challenge was just one example of Pouraliganji’s brilliant defensive work, which continued to keep them at bay for most of the match.
5. Isco (Spain)
Once again, Isco was at the heart of all of Spain’s attacking play. His set pieces were both dangerous and devious, and he threatened Iran’s defence as he drifted all over the field and beat opponents with his brilliant dribbling. His combination with Silva was as effective as ever.

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