If your only strategy is defending to death, it is probable that sooner or later you will end up conceding at least one goal. Especially if your opponent is Spain, and their striker is Diego Costa. This is what happened to Iran tonight, whose coach Carlos Queiroz prepared the game with the one and only idea of keeping the Spanish away from the Asian goal, and built a Maginot Line that held for 53 minutes.
Which is indeed a shame, because as soon they went down, the Iranians finally started to put their heads outside of their box, and did manage to create a few troubles to Fernando Hierro’s Roja, including an equalising goal disallowed by referee Andrés Cunha with the help of VAR. Spain could thus continue their battle at distance with Portugal, which also won 1-0 today: It will take the last two games next Monday to determine which team advances to the knock-out phase from the first spot of Pool B.
Coach Queiroz, who was coming from a late 0-1 win over Morocco and likely thinking that a goalless draw could be a golden outcome, locked down his side of the pitch with two layers of defense. It was not uncommon in the first half to see Iran defending with all their 11 men.
Spain, on the other hand, recovered Dani Carvajal on the right side of their defense, and accumulated a monstrous volume of ball possession – peaking at 72% – but failed to create any dangerous chance in the initial 45 minutes. So, the true protagonist of the first half turned out to be referee Andrés Cunha from Uruguay, growling and snarling at players from both sides to prevent a nervous match from getting out of control.
As teams got back in the pitch with no changes after the break, the Spaniards produced three clear scoring chances in the space of five minutes. Goalkeeper Ali Beiranvand deserved the applauses from the Kazan Arena spectators in the 49th minutes, as he flew to deflect a shot by Sergio Busquets, and then was faster than Lucas Vazquez to clear the ball away and prevent his tap in.
Iran gave some signs of life in the 52nd minute, with a violent shot by captain Karim Ansarifard hitting the exterior net of David De Gea’s goal, giving for one second the impression of having scored. But just one minute later, Spain finally collected the fruit of their relentless assault, and put their heads ahead.
It happened in an almost casual way, and thanks to the man – Diego Costa – who had already solved much of the Spanish problems in their debut with Portugal. The Chelsea’s striker caught a pass by the eternal Andres Iniesta, his shot was rebounded by Iran’s defense, but only to hit his foot again and bounce into the opponent’s net.
The goal was a waking call for Team Melli, which actually reached a dramatic equaliser in the 62nd minute, with a header by Saeid Ezatolahi. But as the whole team, substitutes included, were running to celebrate, Cunha had already raised his arm to flag an – indeed minimal – offside position. The VAR confirmed his decision, after almost two minutes of theatrical suspense.
From then on, the pattern returned the same, with Iran defending like a rugby team on their touch-line, but still capable of scaring De Gea again with a new header by Mehdi Taremi. Queiroz and his boys will now need to go all-in with Portugal next Monday, if they want to catch an improbable qualification.
Curtains fell on the game during extra time when defender Milad Mohammadi attempted a throw-in with a somersault, a feat popularized back in the early ‘90s by Estonian defender Risto Kallaste, and probably the most spectacular thing seen tonight. Still, Cunha was inflexible and made him repeat the throw-in. I mean, come on…
June 20, 2018 – World Cup Group Stage Pool B
SCORER: 53′ Diego Costa
|IRAN (4-5-1): Beiranvand; Razaeian, Hosseini, Pouraliganji, Hajsafi (69 Mohammadi); Ansarifad (75′ Jahanbakhsh), Ebrahimi, Taremi, Ezatolahi, Amiri (85′ Ghoddos); Azmoun (Rashid, Abedzadeh, Torabi, Shojaei, Khanzadeh, Ghoddos, Montazeri, Reza, Jahanbakhsh, Cheshmi, Dejagah) Coach: Queiroz|
|SPAIN (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Carvajal, Piqué, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba; Busquets, Iniesta (71′ Koke); Vazquez (80′ Asensio), Isco, David Silva; Diego Costa (89′ Rodrigo) (Arrizabalaga, Reina, Nacho, Saul, Aspas, Thiago, Odriozola, Azpilicueta, Monreal) Coach: Hierro|
REFEREE: Cunha (Uruguay)
NOTES: Yellow Card: Amiri (I)