Content Editor at Free Super Tips, Alex was born in the shadow of Old Trafford and is an avid Man Utd fan. After graduating from university he combined his love of football, writing and betting to join FST and now closely follows goings-on in all of the top European leagues.
When the draw was made in Moscow last December, few would have predicted that Group B would have ended up with such a dramatic conclusion. It was supposed to be the group that would be dominated by the European giants of Portugal and Spain but it concluded with no side having won a match by more than one clear goal and while the Iberian duo did ultimately progress, it was not without a number of real scares on a surprisingly entertaining and certainly controversial final night.
A remarkable finale to both games saw two pivotal Stoppage Time VAR decisions lead to goals as top spot in Group B changed from Portugal to Spain and then very nearly Iran in a matter of minutes. Had Mehdi Taremi fired into the back of the net rather than the side-netting in the 94th minute of his side’s game, Iran would have not only progressed at the expense of Portugal but would have also finished above Spain to top the group.
Fernando Hierro’s side would have been oblivious to the drama in Saransk as Iago Aspas’ late goal spared their blushes against Morocco. Ultimately it ensured Spain progress to the preferable but by no means simple task of a last sixteen tie against hosts Russia at the Luzhniki rather than a tough game against Uruguay in Sochi. However that was only half the story on a night when Spain looked like anything but potential world champions.
Read more: Spain’s Best Ever World Cup XI
A Comedy of Errors
From one to eleven, Spain named one of the most decorated sides to ever take to the field at a World Cup. Despite the seemingly routine task of securing qualification Fernando Hierro took no chances and must have thought he could trust his talented and vastly experienced side to handle the situation and see La Roja through to the last sixteen with minimal fuss. However that would prove wishful thinking as time and time again, world class players made basic errors and looked anything but the cohesive, fluid unit that has genuinely impressed over the past twelve months leading many to tip Spain as potential World Cup winners.
The night almost got off to the worst possible start for Spain as Gerard Pique inexplicably dived in two footed on Morocco’s Khalid Boutaïb. The Barcelona man, who had won his 100th cap in the previous game, was very fortunate to get away without caution for a tackle that wasn’t referred to VAR but certainly incensed the Moroccan players.
Two more veterans of Spain’s 2010 World Cup win were next to be guilty of a severe early lapse in concentration. A breakdown in communication between Andres Iniesta and Sergio Ramos let Boutaïb in for a clear run at goal and he provided the composed finish which gave Morocco a shock lead inside fifteen minutes.
While Isco quickly levelled for Spain, the mistakes kept coming and Spain looked much more like the underwhelming version of themselves that misfired in 2014 and 2016 rather than the side that conquered Europe and the world between 2008 and 2012. Pique and Ramos were left day-dreaming again in the First Half as a simple long-throw over the top released another Moroccan player for a clear run at goal. The North Africans continued to cause problems after the break and while Spain predictably bossed possession, there was no real surprise when Morocco took the lead in the 81st minute with more poor marking from a corner largely to blame.
Read more: Isco the key for Spain?
Why were Spain so poor?
— Mirror Football (@MirrorFootball) June 25, 2018
Almost inevitably, any poor Spanish performance at this World Cup was going to lead to suggestions that the change in coach on the eve of the tournament was to blame. However in Fernando Hierro’s defence, he can hardly carry the can for the number of very basic individual errors that were made against Morocco. The theory was that the departure of Lopetegui would simply lead to Spain’s veteran players taking more responsibility and leading from the front but the opposite happened in Kaliningrad as one by one they made errors that you simply wouldn’t expect to see from proven world class performers.
There was an air of arrogance about Spain as if they could simply show up and do the job and they didn’t look like a team that was ready for the frenetic, in your face approach of a Morocco side that looked like they had everything to play for despite their early elimination. Perhaps Spain underestimated the opposition and they were certainly caught cold and probably should have been both a man and a goal down inside the opening fifteen minutes, which would have left their very progress in the tournament on the line.
Spain passed the ball as well as they always do but it wasn’t just the defence that didn’t cover themselves in glory. Diego Costa was ineffectual up front and was replaced with fifteen minutes to go. David Silva has had a quiet tournament by his standards and could find his place under threat in the next round, particularly with Iago Aspas coming off the bench to grab yet another substitute goal. Meanwhile Thiago didn’t exactly grab his chance in midfield as he made his first start of the 2018 World Cup.
Any Positives for Fernando Hierro to take?
Spain’s performances at this World Cup have got worse with each game and certainly there is plenty to concern fans of La Roja and there would have been plenty of thinking for Fernando Hierro to do on the long flight from Kaliningrad to the team’s base in Krasnodar. However despite all that, there are positives to take.
The most obvious one is that they are through to the last sixteen as group winners and Spain fans would have gladly taken that given the shambolic build-up to the tournament which saw boss Julen Lopetegui sacked just two days before their opening game. While taking on Russia in front of a hostile home crowd of nearly 80,000 won’t be easy, a last sixteen tie against the hosts still has the feel of positive news for Spain particularly after Uruguay dismantled the Russians earlier on Monday, something that would have been a real dent to their confidence following those two impressive wins. Put mildly, Spain have a vastly superior side and if they can find the level they found in their opening game against Portugal, La Roja ought to make the last eight of a major tournament for the first time since they won Euro 2012.
Despite a below-par showing against Morocco, three goals for Diego Costa at this World Cup would have been a huge lift to him and seemingly solves Spain’s striker problem. Meanwhile it’s not as though they are short on options should he wish to mix things up in the next round with Iago Aspas and Marco Asensio among those capable of coming in and making big contributions.
The Morocco game also highlighted that Andres Iniesta remains an integral part of this side. Following his early mistake, Iniesta showed real fight and desire to make amends and quickly did so by rolling back the years with a lively burst into the penalty area before setting up Isco to score. Any doubts as to his ability to still produce at the very highest level cannot be questioned and if they can tighten up defensively, Spain still have a host of potential match-winners at the opposite end of the pitch.
Perhaps most significantly from a morale point of view is that the late equaliser against Morocco extends Spain’s unbeaten record that stretches all the way back to Euro 2016. They will need to get better in the knock-out rounds if it is to last much longer but Spain have plenty of room for improvement and they have almost a week now to rest up and refocus ahead to the next round.
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