A scrappy Diego Costa strike in the 54th minute saw Spain edge past a dogged Iranian side as eventual 1-0 winners in their Group B tie in Kazan that puts them in a pole position alongside Portugal to progress to the knockout stages with four points from two matches.
Fernando Hierro’s first victory as La Roja boss was easy on the eye, yet largely unproductive for major periods of the game as the Spaniards’ stronghold over possession (72%) counted for an uninspiring one shot on target from a David Silva freekick in the entirety of the first half.
While the likes of Andres Iniesta and Isco partook in certain spells of intricate one-two’s on the left flank, the presence of a natural wide man who could dance past the Full-Back and deliver dangerous crosses was evidently absent. Lucas Vazquez’s inclusion for midfield general Koke was perceived to be a natural solution, however, the Real Madrid man was a mere passenger during the proceedings. The resultant of this lack of pace were narrow passing patterns in the centre of the park and an over-reliance on Jordi Alba and Dani Carvajal to conjure something out of nothing for Diego Costa to latch on too.
Carlos Queiroz chose not to mince matters with an excessively defensive outlook in a 4-1-4-1 formation which followed the natural course of sitting overtly deep and played out to be a 6-2-2 setup in actuality that defended resolutely throughout the game and kept the Spanish schemers at bay, especially on the right-hand side. The Asians’ pragmatic approach involved a plethora of tactical fouls and attempts at running down the clock with goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand showcasing his most dramatic rendition of pulling up with an injury after Diego Costa’s supposed stamp on his foot during a slight spat between the pair.
In the second half, Fernando Hierro’s team talk bore fruit as La Roja started the game at a much higher tempo, engaging in slick exchanges with Isco operating in a more advanced wing role which saw him ghost past Ramin Rezaeian on several occasions as Spain’s most lethal outlet.
Gerard Pique’s close-range attempt from a corner almost broke the deadlock, however, Queiroz’s well-drilled backline literally and figuratively put their bodies on the line to deny the Barcelona defender a goal on his 100th appearance for the national team.
Alireza Beiranvand’s acrobatic save from a Sergio Busquets’ curler in the 48th minute saw Iran further hold firm to their defensive masterclass; however, the Spaniards were inching increasingly closer to a winner.
Iranian substitute Milad Mohammadi will go down in history as the player who tried a front flip throw-in at the 2018 Russian World Cup. He became an instant Internet sensation and many fans online were seen expressing their sheer bewilderment.
Hahahaha this Iran player attempting a front flip throw in is my hero 😂 pic.twitter.com/rAAj28Wz5k
— azy (@azymanzur) June 20, 2018
Nine minutes into the second half, Andres Iniesta’s pass inside Iran’s penalty area to Diego Costa saw Ramin Rezaeian’s attempted clearance ricochet off his leg to give Spain a rather fortuitous lead. The former Chelsea striker is the tournament’s second-highest goalscorer with 3 goals alongside Russia’s Denis Cheryshev behind Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.
However, Carlos Queiroz and co, did not allow their heads to drop and were spurred on by Costa’s goal with swift and direct counter-attacking football and began to grab the game by the scruff of the neck.
In the 62nd minute, Saeid Ezatolahi levelled the scores for Team Melli, however, the FC Rostov midfielder’s strike was deemed offside by VAR after referee Andres Cunha’s consultation.
Iran’s fearless approach was on hand once again as Mehdi Taremi’s back post header was whiskers away from sending Iranian hearts into a frenzy.
Sometimes luck is all you kneed.
(we'll see ourselves out) pic.twitter.com/B6arwyukFU
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 20, 2018
The experienced Spanish backline was suspect during Iran’s 20-minute domineering spell, struggling to go toe-to-toe against their imposing physicality and brilliant delivery.
Hierro decided to play a more defensive card by replacing Andres Iniesta for the more industrious Koke to add much-needed steel to the Spanish midfield, that was losing possession and getting caught out on the break, similar to their opening tie against Portugal.
La Roja managed to distribute the ball neatly during the last quarter of the match and held on to a shaky 1-0 win against Iran.
While the performance did not set the world alight, the victory was certainly deserved and winning ugly is a true sign of champions.
With a mere point needed to qualify for the round of 16, Spain’s penultimate group stage clash against eliminated Morocco is a mere formality in their quest to the knockout rounds,
However, Fernando Hierro must ensure that La Roja up the ante in each and every department of the game if they to wish to repeat history.
Feature Image via CBS Sports
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