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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Portugal ride Ronaldo’s wave to edge out determined Atlas Lions

Fayçal Fajr lifted the free-kick long into the box. In the dying embers of Morocco’s clash with Portugal, the Atlas Lions were desperately trying to recoup a one-goal deficit that had existed from the fourth minute of the match. At stake were Morocco’s chances of progressing from a tough group, with a loss certainly consigning Hervé Renard’s team to elimination – with one game still to play. Fajr’s free-kick was launched at the mass of bodies now crowding the Portuguese penalty area, and it fell at the feet of Moroccan captain Medhi Benatia, who had space and drew back his left foot to shoot from inside the area. He had missed in an almost identical situation earlier in the half, but surely this time, with the game on the line and everything set up perfectly, he could test Rui Patricio. Once again, the ball cleaved the air over the bar, sailing away from the goals and, ultimately, proving to be Morocco’s last chance to save their tournament. They fought valiantly, but they ultimately fell to a goal from the man who has destroyed so many of Portugal’s opponents: Cristiano Ronaldo.

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Cristiano Ronaldo lunges forward to score the only goal of the game in the fourth minute. After going ahead early on, the Portuguese held onto their lead for the rest of the match.

Whatever plan Hervé Renard had made to deal with Ronaldo after his stunning hat-trick in Portugal’s opening clash with Spain, it didn’t work. Less than five minutes had elapsed when Bernardo Silva and João Moutinho combined to deliver the ball into the box from a Portuguese corner, and Ronaldo, apparently unmarked and in plenty of space, headed home from close range. Manuel da Costa, assigned to stick with the Portuguese captain, was neatly sidestepped, and Munir El Kajoui had absolutely no chance as Ronaldo dived forward and drilled his header into the back of the net. When, a few minutes later, Ronaldo found space to shoot in the box and only narrowly missed, and Morocco seemed incapable of keeping him down.

Then things began to turn. Morocco started to put some sustained pressure on the Portuguese, working to win the ball high up the pitch and beginning to take some control. On the left wing, Hakim Ziyech was the architect, creating their best chance when he picked out Medhi Benatia from a corner and twice working his way into space to fire shots at Rui Patricio. In the meantime, he drifted all over the field, stringing together excellent passes and creating plenty of problems. On the right, Nordin Amrabat, who started the game wearing a skull cap but ditched it after 15 minutes, was the main weapon. He had pace, skill and threatened every time he received the ball, especially in space. Portuguese left-back Raphaël Guerreiro was a man under siege, often left embarrassed by his quicker, more skilled and cannier opponent, and Amrabat looked like breaking the game wide open on a number of occasions. Unfortunately for Morocco, he didn’t. Portugal still carried some threat, and El Kajoui was forced into a tough reflex save to deny Gonçalo Guedes just before the break.

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Nordin Amrabat (left) attempts to take on Portuguese left-back Raphaël Guerreiro. Amrabat was too good for Guerreiro all day, and he created plenty of trouble for Portugal.

Morocco started the second half with all of the zest they showed in the first, but they still struggled to break through Portugal’s defence. Patricio was forced to make a brilliant save to deny Younès Belhanda, whose headed effort from another dangerous Ziyech free-kick was destined for the bottom corner before the experienced goalkeeper deflected it away for the relative harmlessness of a corner. Shortly afterwards, Benatia blasted a shot over the bar, and it seemed like Morocco were beginning to lay a prolonged siege to the Portuguese goal. They couldn’t. The chances continued to come, but Portugal were able to assert just enough control to keep the pressure from mounting. Ziyech had a great chance, but his shot was deflected over the bar. The corner came to nothing. Pepe deflected a Moroccan corner into his arm. Morocco’s protestations for a penalty came to nothing. Morocco fought until the final whistle, and dominated a Portuguese team who didn’t disprove the theory that they’re too reliant on Ronaldo. It all came to nothing.

Moscow – Luzhniki Stadium
Portugal 1 (Ronaldo 4)
Morocco 0
Referee: Mark Geiger (USA)
Portugal (4-4-2): Rui Patricio – Cédric, Pepe, Fonte, Guerreiro; Bernardo Silva (Gelson Martins 59), João Moutinho (Adrien Silva 89), William Carvalho, João Mário (Fernandes 70); Guedes, Ronaldo.
Morocco (4-2-3-1): El Kajoui – Dirar, Benatia, da Costa, Hakimi; El Ahmadi (Fajr 86), Boussoufa; N Amrabat, Belhanda (Carcela 75), Ziyech; Boutaïb (El Kaabi 69).

Top 5
1. Nordin Amrabat (Morocco)
Amrabat was in blistering form down the right, terrorising Guerreiro all match and giving the Portuguese defence plenty of problems. His delivery into the box was dangerous, and if Morocco had a clinical finisher in the middle he could have finished the game with multiple assists.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Ronaldo only needed one moment to win Portugal the match. His evasion of da Costa at an early corner and subsequent finish proved to be the only goal of the match, and it gave him a remarkable record of four goals in two games at this tournament. Do Portugal rely on him too much? We shall see.
3. Hakim Ziyech (Morocco)
Ziyech was everywhere as Morocco tried desperately to equalise, and he looked like one of the only Moroccan players capable of creating chances against a solid Portuguese back four. His set piece delivery was brilliant, and caused plenty of nervous moments for Portugal.
4. Rui Patricio (Portugal)
Considering Morocco’s control of possession and territory, Patricio had less work to do than he may have otherwise expected. He was, however, called upon to make some tough stops, with his effort to deny a well-taken Belhanda header a particularly brilliant – and crucial – intervention.
5. Mbark Boussoufa (Morocco)
Boussoufa worked hard on and off the ball and allowed Morocco to control the game with his work in the middle. He created some chances with dangerous deliveries into the Portuguese penalty area, and put good pressure on Portugal when they had the ball.

Bouhaddouz howler grants Iran ugly win

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.

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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.

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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
Morocco 0
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.

Top 5
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.