Iago Aspas earns Spain top spot after dramatic Morocco draw

Spanish come from behind twice in Kaliningrad to set up last-16 clash with Russia

Spain 2 Morocco 2

What a thriller. The Atlas Lions bow out, then, having left their mark on this World Cup - and on their illustrious neighbours from across the Strait of Gibraltar.

They shook Spain to the core here. An injury time VAR intervention, rightly clarifying that Iago Aspas was onside for his deft flick which gave Spain a late equaliser, meant that Spain finished as winners of Group B. There were flashes of the mesmeric here but Spain lacked conviction and looked rattled and, because of a hectic closing passage between Iran and Portugal (which finished 1-1), they might have been dumped out here on this wintry June night in Kaliningrad. It might also have been the night when the world fell a little out of love with this Spanish team.

There were chaotic signs during the long minute when the VAR officials studied the film; Spain's bench in uproar, Fernando Hierro shoving his players back and Morocco, in keeping with their attitude, getting in the faces of the decorated Spaniards. Even if Morocco didn't consciously go after Sergio Ramos, Spain's totemic enforcer, he is the one who will have the darkest dreams after this, getting caught for both Morocco goals. As it was, Morocco coach Herve Renard cast a further aspersion on Aspas' goal, noting that it resulted from a corner that should have been taken from the flag to the right of Morocco's goalposts.


“The only question I would like to raise is on the second goal, we expected a corner on one side: it was played on the other side. I wonder if this is allowed. If it is not, then there is a major mistake. Are we allowed to take a corner kick on one hand of the pitch when the ball has gone out on the other? I checked with the referees but the door was closed.”

Before kick-off Ramos was charm personified with the mascots and in the hand-shakes but from the first whistle he set about re-enforcing his role as international football’s pre-eminent hard man.

In a tetchy opening 10 minutes, he squared up to Nouredine Amrabat, the beefy Leganes midfielder, needled by the kind of borderline physical tackle in which he himself specialises. A few minutes later, he petulantly shoved Amrabat off the ball - just to let him know he could. So there was something karmic about Ramos' being central to the confusion that led to Morocco's goal. With Andres Iniesta seeking refuge from the hard-chasing Khalid Boutaib, Ramos showed for the ball and then backed off, assuming Iniesta wanted to resume control.

Fatally Iniesta also slowed at the same instance and Boutaib stole through that sliver of uncertainty. Boutaib had a lot to do, cantering forward like a 40/1 outsider at Aintree and sliding the ball underneath David de Gea as Gerard Pique arrived to help. Morocco, at last, had their moment of World Cup ecstasy. The look of disgust on Ramos’ facewas the icing on the meskouta.

It lasted all of four minutes. For about thirty seconds, Iniesta looked aghast. Then he set about retrieving the game. Spain better hope Don Andres can stay healthy for this tournament. He was at his most brilliantly wicked here against Morocco for that 20 minute spell after Morocco’s opener. Everyone knows you can’t keep your eyes off Iniesta and yet Achraf Hakimi and company had trouble finding him.

It took him just five minutes to concoct Spain’s equaliser and must have driven Herve Renard to distraction: a simple pass to-and go with David Silva and nobody tracked Iniesta as he ghosted into Morocco’s box to edge a return pass for Isco to bang home from close range. After that, he ran the show while the North Africans, hearteningly, showed no sign of backing down from their neighbours, hacking merrily at the most expensive ankles in La Liga. And the Spaniards didn’t like it.

Spain, when it comes down to it, are the most cultured of bullies in the playground. They cut off the passing routes for teams trying to play the ball out of their own half better than any team out there and there were shades of the hell they visited on Ireland six years ago on a rainy night in Poland when, at 1-1, they began to hustle the Moroccans into rushed, heavy passes, suffocating the area between their box and midfield. It’s a form of arrogance, of course, basically saying to Morocco: we are going to take the ball off you now.

They did, too, but it almost cost them a second goal, when they remained stationed across Morocco’s half of the field and were then stranded by a basic long throw-in which sent Boutaib on his way again. This time, the angle was tighter and the pressure was greater and his shot canonned off the advancing De Gea. But it was a warning flare.

In the 55th minute, another arrived, when Nabil Dirar thundered downfield with the ball off, leading to a brilliant swerving shot off the crossbar from the fearless Amrabat. It deserved a goal for ambition alone. Again, this was a warning that the aristocrats didn’t heed. Spain continued to dominate possession, with Isco, who had a terrific game, exploiting the space left on Morocco’s left wing and Dani Caravajal enjoying similar space.

But maybe too much of their game ran through Iniesta and the lulling, transfixing passing patterns lacked bite.

“Maybe we weren’t focussed from the beginning,” said Isco. “Maybe what we are lacking is a greater control of the game, with more ball possession.”

But it wasn't that. It was the relentlessness that was missing. Spain relaxed, Morocco won a corner and in the 81st minute Youssef En Nesyri rose to clatter through Ramos to head home a powerful and famous header. They were just seconds away from an unforgettable win. Spain have leaked five goals in winning this group and face Russia now in a prestige last sixteen game. They can expect to be hacked.

Spain (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Carvajal, Pique, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba; Busquets, Thiago (Asensio 74); Silva (Rodrigo 84), Isco, Iniesta; Costa (Aspas 74).

Morocco (4-2-3-1): Mohamedi; Dirar, da Costa, Saiss, Hakimi; El Ahmadi, Boussoufa; Nordin Amrabat, Belhanda (Fajr 63), Ziyech (Bouhaddouz 85), Boutaib (En-Nesyri 72). Booked: El Ahmadi,Nordin Amrabat,da Costa,Boussoufa,Mohamedi, Hakimi.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times