Aspas saves Spain’s blushes against determined Morocco

It wasn’t meant to be this way. All the Spanish needed was a draw, against a Moroccan side who had already been eliminated. Sure, the Atlas Lions didn’t deserve to exit in such circumstances, and they had fought valiantly in defeats against Iran and Portugal, but it shouldn’t have been too hard for Spain to at least come away with the draw they needed to seal their safe passage from a competitive group. Now, with the end of normal time rapidly approaching, Spain were behind, and desperate to make something happen. After a sequence of controversial calls, Spain won a corner, and immediately sought to take it. Caught off guard, Morocco’s defence weren’t ready for Iago Aspas to latch onto Dani Carvajal’s cross, and they weren’t ready for the substitute to flick the ball into the back of the net. Then came Morocco’s salvation, and heartbreak for Spain. The offside flag was raised.

If Spain had expected the already eliminated Moroccans to meekly surrender to their more skilled opponents, they were very wrong. Morocco came out hard and it was a fiery start to the game, with a couple of early incidents drawing the ire of both teams and requiring the attention of referee Ravshan Irmatov. Nordin Amrabat and Sergio Ramos nearly came to blows, and Gerard Piqué’s two-footed sliding challenge on Khalid Boutaïb sent Boutaïb to the ground and provoked an defensive response from the Spanish defender, who believed his opponent to have dived and felt slighted by the insinuation that he was in the wrong. Then Spain went behind, and what was meant to be a cruisy match before the knockout stages suddenly became a much harder engagement than Spain had expected.

Boutaïb scored the goal against the run of play, capitalising on a poor pass in midfield to shock the Spanish. It was Ramos and Andrés Iniesta, Spain’s two most experienced campaigners, who conspired to play the Moroccan striker through. Iniesta played the fateful pass, completely missing his captain and allowing Boutaïb to run on to the ball and find himself one-on-one with Spanish goalkeeper David de Gea. De Gea tried his best, but he didn’t really stand a chance as Boutaïb’s shot slipped past him and rolled into the back of the net.

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Isco celebrates with teammates after scoring Spain’s first goal. The goal cancelled out Khalid Boutaïb’s opener, and settled Spain’s nerves after a poor start.

The Spanish, especially Aspas, reacted with indignation as all eyes turned to the linesman with his arm aloft and his flag in the air. It didn’t take long for them to begin badgering Irmatov, urging him to reverse his decision and consult with the video assistant referee. Eventually, the Uzbek referee obliged, and bedlam ensued as Morocco added their voices to Spain’s protests, aggrieved that said protests had achieved their aim of getting the goal checked. The offside call was tight – very tight.

Spain recovered shortly afterwards, with Iniesta atoning for his earlier error by slipping through the defence in conjunction with Diego Costa and Isco. The three played a beautiful series of passes, and Iniesta found himself on the by-line in a dangerous position. He cut the ball back into the centre, where Isco took a touch to control it and slammed it into the back of the net. Order had been restored.

The rest of the half progressed with few chances, with Spain controlling possession but Morocco holding firm. A quick throw from Hakim Ziyech, who was prodded into action after Moroccan coach Hervé Renard spotted an opportunity, caught the Spanish defence napping and sent Boutaïb through on goal again. De Gea managed to close him off quickly, and he saved it by getting his body in the way, but the warning was clear. The fiery nature of the contest didn’t abate as the match progressed, with Irmatov brandishing yellow cards to Amrabat, Manuel da Costa and then Mbark Boussoufa (for protesting the decision to book da Costa). The referee had plenty of work to do keeping tempers in check, and he even managed to involve himself in play by inadvertently sending Boutaïb sprawling. As the half wound to a close, Amrabat was lucky not to be sent off after tripping Sergio Busquets from behind and Morocco were lucky not to concede as Iniesta’s ball across goal evaded all, including the desperate slide of Costa.

The goal was paid, and Aspas wheeled away in a belated celebration. There may have been a delay in its award, but Aspas’ excitement in scoring the key goal wasn’t tempered by said delay. Aspas may have been happy, but Morocco were anything but. Tempers flared on the sidelines and all over the pitch, touchline staff made their way onto the field of play, and Achraf Hakimi became the seventh Moroccan to receive a booking in the process. Irmatov couldn’t be in two places at once, and he struggled to control the chaos that was unfolding.

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Iago Aspas (centre) scores his controversial back-heeled goal past Munir El Kajoui (left). The goal was initially disallowed, but that decision was reversed by the VAR.

The second half started similarly enough to the first, with neither side creating too many opportunities and both sides playing with similar intensity. Morocco had a great chance early when Mbark Boussoufa slipped in behind, but de Gea’s quick thinking averted a potential disaster for Spain. Spain started to control possession, but Morocco continued to create chances and Amrabat was very lucky when a dangerous strike hit the underside of the bar and bounced out. Spain thought they had scored when Isco rose to meet a cross into the box and headed it wide of Munir El Kajoui, but Romain Saïss was there to clear it away. When Gerard Piqué rose to head the resultant corner and only just missed from a dangerous position, Morocco seemed to be in trouble.

They managed to settle well, and soon the worst of the danger had passed. Then, after a lull in goalmouth action, Morocco took the lead once again. Ziyech won a corner, forcing Piqué to block a venomous shot and Fayçal Fajr ran in to take it. He swung it in perfectly, Youssef En-Nesyri leapt higher than Ramos to get his head on the ball, and his headed shot tucked itself neatly into the top corner. Less than 10 minutes of normal time remained, and Spain’s qualification was suddenly in serious doubt – once again.

Finally, the chaos subsided – at least long enough for the game to restart. Morocco were still far from calm, but they were able to play out the remaining minutes and there was little incident as the final moments played out with no real chances at either end. For Morocco, the draw was a fitting if slightly dissatisfying result for a team which deserved better from a competitive World Cup effort. For Spain, it allowed them to limp through to the last 16, and even take first place, but it won’t fill them with too much confidence going forward.

Kaliningrad – Kaliningrad Stadium
Spain 2 (Isco 19, Iago Aspas 90+1)
Morocco 2 (Boutaïb 14, En-Nesyri 81)
Referee: Ravshan Irmatov (Uzb)
Spain (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Carvajal, Piqué, Ramos, Jordi Alba; Busquets, Thiago (Asensio 74); Silva (Rodrigo 84), Isco, Iniesta; Diego Costa (Iago Aspas 74).
Morocco (4-2-3-1): El Kajoui – Dirar, da Costa, Saïss, Hakimi; Boussoufa, El Ahmadi; N Amrabat, Belhanda (Fajr 63), Ziyech (Bouhaddouz 85); Boutaïb (En-Nesyri 71).

Top 5
1. Isco (Spain)
Isco played some beautiful balls in behind the Moroccan defence to feed Iniesta and Jordi Alba. He was always dangerous with the ball at his feet, and his goal to cancel out Boutaïb’s opener was very well finished. He seems to be in good touch.
2. Nordin Amrabat (Morocco)
Amrabat capped off a brilliant individual tournament with another dangerous performance on the right wing. He was incredibly unlucky not to score when he shot bounced out off the underside of the bar, and he put plenty of pressure on Spain with his aggression and willingness to compete.
3. Andrés Iniesta (Spain)
Iniesta made the mistake which set up Morocco’s first goal, but he recovered well to pick up an assist and become one of Spain’s most dangerous attackers. He made plenty of incisive runs in behind, and looked like one of the most likely Spanish players to make something happen.
4. Khalid Boutaïb (Morocco)
Boutaïb found the back of the net with an opportunistic goal, and he always looked poised to make an impact with his clever runs in behind. He got himself into plenty of good positions, and he easily could have doubled his tally with his hard work and dangerous forward play.
5. Romain Saïss (Morocco)
Saïss was solid on return to the Moroccan defence, repelling a number of attacks and making a key goal line clearance to deny the Spanish as they pushed to go ahead in the second half. He was in good form, and his solid performance helped Morocco come away with a draw.

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