With 90 minutes played in two simultaneous World Cup group deciders on Monday, Portugal was on track for a massive 1-0 victory over Iran – and, with Spain losing to Morocco, on course for the top of Group B.
And that, based on how the World Cup knockout round bracket is shaping up, would have been crucial.
But two whirlwind stoppage-time sequences, two VAR reviews, and two late goals – one for Iran against Portugal, the other for Spain against Morocco – leveled both games.
Spain and Morocco finished 2-2. Iran and Portugal finished 1-1.
The late drama sent Spain to the top of the group, barely beating out Portugal on the goals scored tiebreaker. The last-minute flip-flop also rearranged the bracket in a way that favors the Spaniards.
Why Spain’s, Iran’s goals were so important
When both games entered stoppage time, the projected bracket – based on the likeliest Matchday 3 scenarios – looked like this:
The Group B winner’s path to the semifinals went through Russia and likely either Denmark or Croatia. The runner-up’s path went through Uruguay and likely either France or Argentina, with Brazil or a host of other giants up next.
The two late goals swapped Spain over to the right side of the bracket, and Portugal over to the left:
Spain has the easier path. Portugal has the more difficult one. Those two goals could have a lasting effect on the World Cup campaigns of the two Iberian giants. And they could keep Spain among the top two or three favorites.
But the scare La Roja received from already-eliminated Morocco might still be cause for concern.
Spain’s early mistake
The story of Spain’s 2014 World Cup crash was a vulnerability on the counterattack – often exacerbated by sloppiness on the ball. The early goal it conceded Monday was a worrying replica.
Andres Iniesta’s loose touch in midfield led to Sergio Ramos’ hesitation, which set Khalid Boutaib on his way, clean through on David De Gea, who at that point still hadn’t made a save at the World Cup. And he didn’t make one here.
Boutaib would find himself one-on-one with De Gea again 11 minutes later, after Spain’s defense again fell asleep. But this time the Spanish keeper stood tall for his first stop of the tournament.
The lapses, though, were alarming. They really were reminiscent of 2014. An impermeable defense was one of Spain’s supposed strengths heading to Russia. It’s been anything but through three games.
But the Spaniards recovered in typical Spanish style. A stunning five-pass sequence – Iniesta to Isco to Diego Costa to Iniesta to Isco, nine touches in all – had the ball in the back of the Morocco net five minutes later.
Iniesta’s first touch was so intelligent. Isco was so composed. And Spain was back in a comfortable position.
Gerard Pique’s shocker
The next 70 minutes were far from comfortable, though. Perhaps the biggest source of discomfort was Gerard Pique. To start, he very easily could have been sent off early in the game for a clumsy, stupid two-footed tackle on Boutaib:
Later in the game, he was guilty of a blatant handball on the edge of the penalty box that the referee failed to spot.
Morocco had other near-misses that didn’t involve Pique, too. Nordin Amrabat struck the crevice of the post, where crossbar and upright meet.
Spain bossed the ball, and had chances of its own. It had a header cleared off the line. Pique flashed a second header just wide.
But the favorites went behind on a Youssef En-Nesyri header in the 81st minute:
Spain, at that point, was headed for second in the group, for a Saturday matchup with Uruguay, and for disappointment. Portugal was winning 1-0. The Spaniards knew they were two goals away from getting back to the top of Group B.
But in dramatic fashion, those two goals – one in each game – arrived. And if other big teams hold serve, Spain will be favored in every game it plays between now and a potential World Cup final.
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