After etching their stamp on history as the first African team to progress to the Round of 16 in the 1986 Mexico World Cup, Youssef En-Nesyri’s towering header past a stationery David De Gea to make it 2-1 was destined to be a highlight reel for the test of time in Moroccan sport. However, an inspired substitution in the form of Iago Aspas levelled proceedings in the 91st minute with the Celta Vigo forward’s deft flick ensuring a berth in the Round of 16 for the Spaniards. Srini reviews the dramatic match at Kaliningrad.
In a contest that offered Fernando Hierro and co the simple permutations of either drawing or beating Morocco to cement qualification to the knockout stages, a Spanish triumph was considered an afterthought. On the back of a jaw-dropping attacking display against Portugal and a dogged victory over Iran, La Roja had silenced critics who questioned their minerals leading up to the controversial sacking of Julen Lopetegui.
As a result, minnows Morocco were expected to be swatted away by the Spanish symphony at hand, with the inclusion of midfield maestro Thiago adding further control to an already high-quality midfield in place of Lucas Vazquez.
However, all pre-match predictions were put to bed by Khalid Boutaib’s nimble finish through De Gea’s legs in the 14th minute to give the Atlas Lions the lead. The Manchester United goalkeeper’s tumultuous start to the World Cup did not seem to improve with the 27-year old conceding a goal from all 4 shots he faced until that point. Despite the Spaniards dominating 73% of the total possession till the 13th minute, a comedy of errors between Andres Iniesta and Sergio Ramos put the Yeti Matalayatyaspor striker in the clear and duly sent the Moroccan faithful into ruptures.
A reinvigorated Iniesta began to run the show after Morocco drew first blood by spraying Hollywood passes across the pitch, while continuing to showcase an encouraging partnership with Isco on the Left-Flank. This synchronization between the old and the new guard was at the peak of its powers when the Barcelona man rolled back the years to glide past Morocco skipper Mbark Boussooufa to tee up Isco for a close-ranged powerful strike into the roof of the net in the 19th minute, making up for his earlier mishap. This was the Real Madrid man’s 10th goal in his last 15 appearances which is a testament to his impact on the national team.
— David Kappel (@kappilinho) June 25, 2018
While La Roja exhibited potent signals of growing into the game, the backline showed signs of vulnerability and an overarching lack of sharpness, especially between the Centre-Halves. Six minutes after the Spanish equalized, Boutaib was clean through on goal once again and his low shot was parried away by De Gea after Gerard Pique was caught napping via a Hakim Ziyech throw-in.
The Barcelona defender’s struggles were amplified after a horrific two-footed challenge on the veteran striker in the first 45 saw him luckily escape a deserved straight red card, much to the fury of Moroccan players and fans in the stadium.
Isco has been Spain’s outright best player against the likes of Portugal and Iran and the former Malaga star was the shining light to an unconvincing La Roja side in the first- half. Drifting into deeper central positions, dancing past opponents and adding much-needed width through wreaking havoc against the pairing of Amrabat and Dirar whilst widening the play to the right-hand side with his inch-perfect passing, the U-21 world champion was at his brilliant best.
However, a continued underwhelming contribution from the likes of Dani Carvajal and David Silva on the right flank influenced a highly unidirectional and one-dimensional overall attacking display from Spain. While the former was pocketed by Real Madrid teammate Achraf Hakimi, the latter cut a perplexed figure who was unsure of his manager’s instructions between playing as either a right-attacking midfielder or simply a second striker.
The poor performances of Carvajal and Silva will be a real headscratcher for Hierro who could introduce the in-form Cesar Azpilicueta who could supply threatening crosses to Costa and actually play to his strengths, while Marco Asensio proves to be a more pacey and direct alternative to the Manchester City vice-captain.
On the contrary, Andres Iniesta, Isco and occasionally Thiago were influencing proceedings. Spain almost took the lead on the brink of half-time with a Diego Costa mishit sliding effort after the Vissel Kobe starman darted past a host of defenders to deliver an enticing cross.
The Spanish began the second-half with a much more lethargic approach and this lackadaisical outlook is what led to Watford winger Nordin Amrabat’s sensational strike from outside the box that struck the post in the 55th minute, causing further headaches for the Spanish back four.
Despite Spain’s 531 passes in comparison to Morocco’s lowly 153 at the start of the second quarter, the underdogs took a shock lead with Malaga’s Youssef En-Nesyri aerially dominating Ramos to make it 2-1.
Hierro decided to utilize his enviable strength in depth to replace Costa and Thiago with Iago Aspas and Marco Asensio in the 82nd minute.
The sudden injection of pace made Spain a much more dynamic prospect going forward and in injury time, ironically a Dani Carvajal cross is what led to Aspas stylishly flicking the ball in to score a last-gasp equalizer. While referee Ravshan Imatov initially disallowed the goal as offside, VAR showed that only Aspas’ shoulder was crossing the offside line and as a result, the benefit of the doubt was given to the ex-Liverpool attacker.
Spain will have to pull their socks up against a high-flying Russian team in the knockout rounds and while fortune favoured the World Cup 2010 champions to finish first in Group B after Iran’s 1-1 draw against Portugal, La Roja will have to be more polished to stand a chance of winning the coveted trophy.
Feature Image via Telegraph
Other Images via Guardian
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