An ill-tempered final Group B fixture culminated in an unsatisfying result for Portugal as Iran held the 2016 European champions to a 1-1 draw at the Mordovia Arena in Saransk. Mordovia was renowned for its role in the October Revolution and how Bolsheviks prevailed in it. On Monday, Iranians almost pulled off a similar feat as they scared Spain and hurt Portugal right where it matters.
Iran needed a win first and foremost, while the other two could have managed with a draw. If the first four matches of this intriguingly diverse Group B were any indication, surprises galore awaited the Iberian nations. Surprises did they receive. Spain may have been subjected to Morocco’s vigorous pressing and unyielding attack, but it was Portugal who were harassed by Iran’s solid rearguard action and ended up losing the ‘first place’ in the group.
The evening began quietly for both Portugal and Iran as they tested the waters with patient build-ups from the centre of the park — neither succeeding in particular. Iran were focussed on denying Portugal space in their defensive third but did not have meaningful contributions going forward. Portugal, as they have showcased through the entire group stage, once again struggled on the creative front. For a team boasting of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Andre Silva, Joao Moutinho and Bernardo Silva in their ranks — all accomplished scorers and creators of goal — Portugal simply do not create enough clear-cut goalscoring chances.
Against Spain and Morocco, Ronaldo had rescued The Navigators with brilliant solo goals. On Monday, it was another veteran Ricardo Quaresma’s turn to shine. Starting for the first time in this World Cup, Quaresma may have lost a lot of his pace since his younger days, but as the first half proved, the former-Porto winger is still a force to be reckoned with. He created Portugal’s first and only goal of the night with a stunning shot from the outside of his right boot, burying it into the top corner and deflating Iran’s hopes in the process.
If the first half was a demonstration of old-school charm of the beautiful game, the ugly side of modernisation of football reared its head in the second half. VAR has offered certain contentious decisions in the last ten days in Russia, none more so than it did at Saransk on Monday.
The Video Assistant Referee was involved in Portugal winning a penalty right after restart of play, but Ronaldo’s timid strike meant Iranians were still in the game. Soon after, Ronaldo was involved in another decision from the VAR as the Portugal skipper went into the referee’s books for elbowing Iran’s Morteza Pouraliganji in the face.
“You stop the game for VAR, there is an elbow. Elbow. Elbow is a red card in the rules, the rules don’t say if it’s Lionel Messi or Ronaldo. We don’t know if it was the referee or the guys upstairs (who decided). This game belongs to the people, not to a couple of guys behind the scenes,” Iran’s manager Carlos Queiroz, Portuguese by birth, was livid after the game about the leniency of the caution though. “My suggestion, Mr Infantino, they have to put up their hand and say: ‘Sorry, VAR is not working so we have to stop it,’ or the communication must be clear like rugby, when everybody knows what is going on,” he added clearly voicing his dissatisfaction.
It wasn’t the final involvement of VAR in the game though. With its next decision, the technological advancement and its interpretation of football laws by the match officials potentially changed the course of the entire World Cup, mostly for Portugal. Iran had hung on by bare thread for most of the game and stole two points away right at the death, just as Iago Aspas broke Moroccan hearts over a thousand miles away in Kaliningrad.
Karim Ansarifard converted the controversial penalty with panache — the penalty decision an absolutely ludicrous one for Azmoun headed the ball onto Cedric Soares’ arm, with no involvement at all from the Portuguese fullback. The goal suddenly swung the momentum in Iran’s favour and the Asian powerhouse almost secured a win with one of the last kicks of the ball, only for Tarimi to shoot wide.
“I'd have to watch it again to talk about it, but I think the VAR did its job and that's what we have to accept,” Fernando Santos wasn’t too concerned about the result, reasserting that his belief in the ability of his players counts the most.
Iran, for all their resilience and simple tactical system, will go home heartbroken but they have thrust upon Portugal a difficult fate as well in the remaining World Cup — casting them into the half of the World Cup which will see the likes of Brazil, Germany and France in the fold, while Spain get a much easier run-in towards the final. Portugal will now travel to Sochi to face Uruguay in the Round of 16, but they must quickly get over the disappointment of Mordovia, especially Ronaldo who sported a gloomy look after the game, for the Selecaos dos Quinas need their captain to fire all cylinders should they wish to successfully traverse this difficult journey.
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Updated Date: Jun 26, 2018 13:44:47 IST