On a madcap night in Kalinigrad, Spain somehow managed to score their second goal and draw level in added time against their southern neighbours across the Mediterranean Sea.
But as the famous Linkin Park song went: “In the end, it doesn’t even matter”, their matter of qualification had been resolved with a late goal in the corresponding Group B fixture between Portugal and Iran nearly 1,600 km away.
Entering the final group game, Spain were atop the standings, and were poised to play the runner-up of Group A. Since Spain and Portugal were level on goals scored and goal difference, and since they drew 3-3 in the opening game, there was a real chance that the topping the group would be resolved on fair play points if both posted identical results. For most of the night, Spain didn’t look like they could top the group. Portugal were 1-0 up against Iran courtesy a Ricardo Quaresma wonder-goal, and with Youssef En-Nesyri scoring a bullet header with barely 10 minutes to play, Spain looked to be relegated to second place.
The matter of finishing first might confer some advantage due to some of the upsets in this tournament; the group winners were likely to face tournament heavyweights such as Brazil, France, Germany, and possibly, Argentina, in their half of the draw. With VAR overturning the Iago Aspas last-gasp equaliser that was initially deemed offside, and with Iran scoring a penalty in their game, Spain seem to have avoided the minefield half of the draw (*Conditions apply: the other fixtures are yet to be completed). Though Portugal faced a major scare in the closing moments of their tie, Spain’s qualification wasn’t a major matter of concern — for this to happen, Morocco had to score a third goal, and they came close to running past Spain many times during the match. It was that kind of night.
Spain dropped Real Madrid winger Lucas Vazquez and brought in the La Masia Bayern Munich player Thiago Alcantara, sacrificing width for more control in central midfield. With De Gea in goal, a half and half El Clasico backline, and Sergio Busquets patrolling defensive midfield, Spain looked to have enough to overcome Morocco. Even though Morocco had nothing to play for, they gave it all during their match against the 2010 world champions. The snarly early exchanges set the tone for the match, with Gerard Pique lucky not to get booked for a foolish challenge; on another day, it could have so easily been a yellow or red card for a two-footed tackle even though he got the ball.
In the fourteenth minute, the atomic clock that is the Spanish passing missed a beat; pantomime villain Sergio Ramos and the virtuous Andres Iniesta had a mix-up near the centre circle of the pitch. Khalid Boutaib, the recipient of the Pique challenge, gleefully pounced on the first of the two Sergio Ramos errors, ran the length of length of the pitch, and produced a calm finish through the legs of David de Gea. Spain were one-nil down; De Gea was yet to produce his first save of the tournament.
This incident seemed to have rattled the Spaniards. Particularly, the diminutive maestro Iniesta seemed to be on a mission to single-handedly atone for having played the lesser part in the build-up to the Morocco goal. First, in the 17th minute, he attempted an uncharacteristic long-range shot; two minutes later Iniesta, true to form, in a textbook example of tiki-taka, sliced through the Moroccan defence, exchanging passes among Diego Costa and Isco, and gliding past a defender to the byline, and dragged back a delightful cutback with the outside of his foot to an onrushing Isco. His heir apparent gleefully completed the sumptuous move by thrashing the ball to the roof of the net. In a matter of five minutes, the match had been levelled. Don Andres wasn’t yet done in the half; in added time, he would waltz past two players and release a ball across the face of goal, begging for it to be tapped in. Diego Costa couldn’t finish the move.
Even though Spain were carving up the Moroccan defence, the northern Africans weren’t giving up as the Spanish defence was prone to going to sleep. Off a throw on the halfway line, Boutaib once again raced clear of a slumbering Pique, but thankfully for Spain, De Gea was able to produce his first save. The Moroccans also made their presence felt with four yellow cards within the first 32 minutes. After a feisty first half, Spain were on course to qualify behind Portugal.
Spain were sloppy in the second half as well. After a couple of scares (a Pique handball and an unconvincing De Gea clearance), they almost conceded the goal of the tournament. The tricky Watford winger Nordin Amrabat, who had wreaked havoc against Portugal, let fly an audacious shot from distance off the outside of his boot. De Gea stayed rooted in prayer as it homed in on the top corner, only to be thwarted by the inside of the post and bounce to safety. Yet another bullet dodged. The Spanish attack still continued to threaten though; only a goal-line clearance prevented Isco from adding to his tally. A raft of substitutions followed.
Then, in the 81st minute, Morocco scored their second goal, courtesy a bullet header from the substitute Youssef En-Nesyri, who outjumped Sergio Ramos to score. In terms of the qualification, it didn’t change much, but this result would hurt Spain. The final twist came in added time off a short corner, when Aspas flicked on a whipped Caravajal ball from the right. After a consultation, the referee pointed to the centre circle, indicating the goal.
Spain’s opponents would have no doubt noted their lightweight defence. Their ageing, shaky spine of Busquets, Ramos and Pique will worry Fernando Hierro. Eight years earlier, with the same spine they had conceded two goals in the entire tournament. Here, they had let in five in the group stage itself. The truth is stark — they can’t cover ground like they used to. They could do with a muscular midfield shield to mitigate this risk, but truth be told, they don’t make those types anymore — Chelsea’s Kante and Real Madrid’s Casemiro are just two isolated examples across top European clubs. The left-sided triumvirate of Isco, Iniesta and Jordi Alba are a delight to watch, but this makes the attack lopsided. Perhaps more chances to Marco Asensio or Vazquez on the right could shake things up a bit. Up next is a more comfortable encounter against the heavily-supported Russian team (compared to Uruguay, that is).
Though Spain have avoided a potential WWE triple threat style match against Uruguay featuring Suarez, Pique, and Ramos, a showdown between Suarez and Pepe will still be fun to watch. Bring on the film clapboards.
News credit : Firstpost