KALININGRAD, Russia — As sports crises go, it doesn’t get much bigger than losing a coach 24 hours before the start of the World Cup. And yet, after three games here, Spain — thanks to a mix of resilience and good fortune — emerged from the chaos as the top team in Group B, setting up a meeting with Russia in the round of 16.
That chaos extended into stoppage time of Spain’s final group-stage match on Monday against Morocco, which had already been eliminated but somehow led by 2-1 as the clock ticked past 90 minutes in Kaliningrad. With Portugal leading Iran late in their Group B game, Spain was poised to limp through in second place.
Then everything turned, thanks to the World Cup’s contentious new innovation: the video assistant referee, or V.A.R.
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First, a goal by Spain’s Iago Aspas in the 91st minute was initially disallowed by an offside call. But after a protracted V.A.R. review, it was ruled to be a goal after all, spurring frenzied celebrations on the Spanish bench. It got wilder still, as the V.A.R. delivered a penalty kick for Iran after a review in the 93rd minute against Portugal over in Saransk. Iran converted, securing a draw and lifting Spain to the top spot in the group and sending Portugal to a meeting with Uruguay in the next round.
Emerging from that maelstrom, as well as the bewildering turn that suddenly made him the coach of the Spanish national team, was Fernando Hierro.
“The mini-goal was to emerge on top of the group and that’s where we are now — mission accomplished,” Hierro said after the game. He had arrived in Russia fully expecting to fulfill his role as the team’s director of football, overseeing the work of Coach Julen Lopetegui, not doing it in his place. But then Lopetegui was fired by the Spanish federation after it had emerged that he had negotiated a deal to become Real Madrid’s new coach without telling his bosses.
“I came here in a suit and I will leave in a tracksuit,” Hierro had said about his sudden appointment.
The surreal chain of events before the tournament led many to demote Spain overnight from one of the tournament’s favorites to a possible group-stage casualty. Hierro has tried to play down the effect of losing Lopetegui so close to the tournament, insisting he is in full control of the team.
“Please don’t think whenever I have to make a decision I call Lopetegui to ask his opinion,” Hierro said. Still, he’s aware that there is room for improvement, particularly when it comes to Spain’s defense.
It gave up three goals to Portugal in the opening game, a pulsating 3-3 tie in which Cristiano Ronaldo accounted for all the scoring for the Portuguese. Morocco has nowhere near the talent of Portugal, and has no one like Ronaldo. Yet it managed to expose defensive deficiencies on Monday that Hierro said he knows he’ll need to address if his team is to go any further.
“We can improve things,” Hierro said, adding, “Five goals in three matches isn’t the way forward.”
Morocco took advantage of Spain’s high defensive line and seized the lead after just 14 minutes following a mix-up between two of the most experienced players on Spain’s roster. When Andrés Iniesta — the veteran midfielder who scored the World Cup-winning goal in 2010 — and the captain Sergio Ramos got in each other’s way near the halfway line, Khalid Boutaib pinched the ball away from them and raced down the field for an easy finish.
Iniesta got some redemption, providing the assist for Isco five minutes later. But Morocco, backed by thousands of traveling supporters, refused to fade away in what was guaranteed to be its final match at this tournament. Boutaib made another run on goal following a simple throw down field a few minutes later. Spain’s goalkeeper, David de Gea, blocked Boutaib’s shot but could only watch as Noureddine Amrabat’s thunderbolt of a rebound bounced back off the woodwork early in the second half.
Then, with just nine minutes left in regulation time, the substitute Youssef En-Nesyri rose above the Spanish defense on a corner kick and headed home a goal to make it 2-1.
Spain looked to have blown the game, and their chance at winning the group, until Aspas got a flick on to Dani Carvajal’s cross in stoppage time. As he turned to celebrate, though, he could see the linesman’s flag raised, calling offside. The referee stepped in, making the signal for a video review, a new and unlikely emblem for the 2018 World Cup. Amid jeers and whistles, Spain had been saved.
As they trooped off the field, relieved to still be in the tournament, the Spanish players received another bit of good news. Iran’s V.A.R.-assisted penalty had saved Spain from the prospect of a meeting with Uruguay, the tiny South American nation that revels in its nickname of “aguafiestas”, or party poopers, for the number of times it has sent bigger nations crashing out of the World Cup. Instead, Spain faces Russia, which had been overrun by Uruguay earlier in the day.
“Luck of the champion? We will have to see what happens on July 1 at 5 p.m.,” Hierro said, looking forward to the next challenge in his unlikely World Cup coaching career.
[Here’s what happened in the other Group B game, Portugal vs. Iran.]
Here’s how Spain and Morocco came to a draw:
After an incredibly entertaining night in Kaliningrad, Spain and Morocco settle for a 2-2 draw. With Portugal and Iran drawing 1-1 in the other game, Spain will advance at the top of the group, to face Russia in the round of 16.
The full four minutes of stoppage time has elapsed, but we will probably have a few more because of the extended VAR.
Iago Aspas scores a nice back heel off a cross, but he is called offside. After an extended video assistant referee review, Aspas is ruled ONSIDE.
Valencia winger Rodrigo comes on for David Silva, as Spain looks to tie this game.
Youssef En-Nesyri, who came in earlier for Khalid Boutaïb, leapt and met a corner kick with his head, powering the ball into an empty corner of the goal.
Spain hasn’t really been finding good chances over the past 10 minutes. Are they content just to advance, or are they going to push even further forward for a goal and winning the group?
Diego Costa makes way for Iago Aspas, and Thiago is replaced by Marco Asensio. Iniesta stays in the game!
Thiago angry at himself for putting a shot from the top of the box well over the goal.
Iniesta came off at the 70th minute mark in each of Spain’s last two games. They probably only have about five minutes to score with Iniesta — who has been their best attacker tonight — still on the field.
On the ensuing corner kick Gerard Pique leaps high, but puts his header just inches past the post.
Almost for Spain! Isco’s floating header is cleared on the line by Romain Saïss. Spain is throwing so many men forward that they probably had six people in the box for that cross from open play.
Nordin Amrabat was inches away from one of the goals of the tournament. His laser from outside of the box flat foots de Gea but bounces off the inside of the post and out.
Huge chance for Morocco, as Mbark Boussoufa goes flying into the box unimpeded. But David de Gea just beats him to the cross, and punches the ball away to safety.
For the second time this match, a Gerard Pique offense goes unpunished. This time he handles the ball right in front of his own box, but despite furious appeals from multiple Moroccan players, it isn’t called.
We are back underway in Kaliningrad. Will Spain turn dominance into a victory, or can Morocco grab a goal or two on the counter attack?
Spain has dominated possession and played a number of dangerous balls, but a huge miscommunication between Andres Iniesta and Sergio Ramos means this game is tied 1-1.
Portugal’s Ricardo Quaresma scored in the 45th minute against Iran in the other Group B game. As things stand, Portugal will win the group and Spain will be second.
Spain should’ve scored. Andres Iniesta got free for what feels like the 50th time this match. He played a perfect ball across the goal, but a sliding Diego Costa somehow only tapped it as it rolled by.
Two minutes of stoppage time left, as a bit of sting has been taken out of the game.
Over in Saransk, Portugal and Iran are still tied 0-0. As things stand, Spain and Portugal would advance, with Spain winning the group on a tiebreaker.
Sergio Busquets gets a free header off a corner kick, but he puts it over.
Spain is really beginning to turn the screw here. Morocco can’t get out of its own way, and the chances it was getting earlier aren’t materializing any more.
Now we have a yellow for Manuel da Costa because of a late challenge on Isco. Moubarak Boussoufa also got one for dissent while protesting the yellow against da Costa.
And now Nordin Amrabat gets the yellow card he’s been asking for since the beginning of the match. He stepped on the back of the cleat of Sergio Ramos, sending it flying into the air.
Khalid Boutaïb ran through the middle with a great chance to score his second and regain the lead for Morocco, but David de Gea made his first save of the tournament to deny Boutaïb.
Karim El Ahmadi is given a yellow card for hacking Sergio Busquets down. That might be the first yellow of many in this match.
A beautiful series of passes sets Iniesta free. He cuts back to Isco, who roofs the ball into the back of the net.
Khalid Boutaïb scores Morocco’s first goal of the tournament on a breakaway. Iniesta and Ramos were passing the ball near midfield when an incredible miscommunication allowed Boutaïb to sneak in and dribble unimpeded toward goal.
Spain is trying to thread through passes for their fullbacks or attacking midfielders to run onto, and then cut back toward the goal. They’ve been close on a few.
Morocco is quite heated at, well, everything. Most notably at the referee separating players before a corner kick and for calling a foul, and at Gerard Piqué for sliding in two-footed on a challenge.
Through the first few minutes, the game has unfolded pretty much how you would expect. Spain has possessed the ball most of the time and is probing for cracks in the Moroccan defense, while Morocco tries to break at speed whenever it gets the opportunity.
We are underway! Spain is in their traditional red, while Morocco is in white.
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