An absolute VAR-ce: Portugal progress after Iran draw
Two penalties awarded in a VAR dominated final group game, as Portugal edge through
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo reacts to receiving a yellow card. Photograph: Getty Images
A late penalty earned a draw for Iran against Portugal in a bad-tempered group decider in Saransk that was dominated by VAR decisions and saw Portugal go through to the knockout stages despite tense final minutes of the game.
Ricardo Quaresma’s stunning goal just before half-time was cancelled out by an injury-time penalty from the substitute Karim Ansarifard, leading to a frantic few minutes before the final whistle in which Iran pushed for a second that would have taken them through. For a brief moment, half the stadium thought Iran had found the most unlikely of winners, but Mehdi Taremi’s shot had hit the side netting.
The referee gave two penalties, one to each side, after VAR reviews, with the Iran penalty in stoppage time looking a harsh decision against Cédric Soares for a handball. Earlier, Cristiano Ronaldo had missed a penalty, initially not given but revised after VAR.
Prior to the game, Iran’s Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz had called the Portugal team “Cristiano Ronaldo and a group of players who run after him”. In the end, though, it was a Ronaldo-esque moment of skill from Quaresma that had the decisive impact on the night.
Quaresma scored just before half-time, taking the ball on and then curling a superb shot with the outside of his boot across the keeper, Alireza Beiranvand, and into the top corner from the corner of the area. Beiranvand, whose diving arm was just shy of the ball, looked sickened, but in reality there was little he could do to stop the strike.
Ronaldo made two main contributions to the game: the first was to miss the penalty, while the second provided perhaps the two most tension-filled minutes of the match, as the referee took an age to review VAR footage of what looked like an elbow by Ronaldo on Morteza Pouraliganji. The contact was there but weak, and in the end the referee went for a compromise yellow.
The first half hour of the game saw many crunching tackles and few clear-cut chances, with the Iranians in particular looking tense due to the importance of the game. This was most visible on the ten-minute mark, after a mix-up between Beiranvand and Saeid Ezatolahi, with the player sliding in to clear just as his goalkeeper was approaching to scoop up the ball. Instead, the loose ball fell to João Mário. He shot over, but Beiranvand shoved Ezatolahi in the chest and yelled some choice words at him. A few minutes later the goalkeeper had nobody to blame but himself when he let a routine cross squirm through his hands, and was lucky that there was no Portugal player on hand to punish him.
Iran tackled hard and, for the most part in the first half, fairly. Alireza Jahanbakhsh caused Portugal problems down the right on Iran’s occasional forays forward, and Raphaël Guerreiro got a booking for bringing him down on the corner of the box.
The goal, just before half time, led Iranian heads to droop and briefly quelled the endless din of the Iranian vuvuzelas inside the stadium. However, they were buoyed soon after the restart. Ronaldo was scythed down by Ezatolahi just inside the box. The referee was having none of it, and in a pre-VAR world, Ronaldo’s reputation for falling easily would have meant the referee’s decision was the end of the matter. But the men in the VAR room soon signalled to the referee that he ought to have a look again, and on seeing the replay he had no choice but to award Portugal the penalty, the impassioned protests of the Iranians leading to nothing but a booking for Ehsan Hajsafi. Beiranvand, who had looked dodgy all night, made amends with a brilliant save, starting off in a position behind his goal line and bouncing forward.
The saved penalty drew tremendous cheers from the Iranian fans and spurred the team on to a period of attacking. Saman Ghoddos, on for Jahanbakhsh, who had faded out of the game in the second half, scuffed a low shot just wide of the post, but for the most part Portugal were in control, and the great roars that accompanied every Iran attack became less frequent. They resorted to looking for unlikely penalties: three times in the second half Iranian players went down in the box, but on each occasion the shouts were extremely optimistic, and Queiroz was warned by the referee for furiously making VAR gestures on the touchline.
It seemed as if Portugal would hold out for the win, but there was much drama to follow: first the VAR decision on the Ronaldo red card, which seemed to take the referee an age, and then Iran’s fourth penalty appeal, which was surprisingly referred to VAR after another long wait. Ansarifard made no mistake from the spot, but it was too little too late, and at the final whistle the Iranians fell on to the ground, dejected.
Iran (4-5-1): Beiranvand, Rezaeian, Hosseini, Pouraliganji, Hajsafi (Mohammadi 56), Taremi, Jahanbakhsh (Ghoddos 70), Ezatolahi (Ansarifard 76), Ebrahimi, Amiri, Azmoun. Booked: Hajsafi, Azmoun. Goals: Ansarifard 90 pen.
Portugal (4-4-2): Rui Patricio, Cedric, Pepe, Fonte, Guerreiro, Quaresma (Bernardo Silva 69), William Carvalho, Adrien Silva, Joao Mario (Joao Moutinho 84), Andre Silva (Goncalo Guedes 90), Ronaldo. Booked: Guerreiro,Quaresma, Ronaldo, Cedric. Goals: Quaresma 45.
Referee: Enrique Caceres (Paraguay).