FIFA World Cup 2018: Predictable Spain lucky to edge past Iran, but lack credible plan B against stout defensive units

The 2010 world champions will be mightily relieved after a Diego Costa goal secured the three points in the “Saffron Derby” and put them joint top of Group B with the last round of fixtures remaining. With Portugal having won their match against a now eliminated Morocco, this was a must-win fixture for Spain. Though the La Roja tried mightily hard to bring down the Iranian defence amidst the deafening din of the vuvuzelas, continuously probing for an opening, the stodgy Iranian backline proved a hard nut to crack in Kazan. That Spain struggled to create clear-cut chances when the match was in balance will be a matter of concern, but they shouldn’t find the going so tough against teams who choose to play the ball against them in future matches. But the teams and their video analysts would have taken note.

Spain's coach Fernando Hierro (L) speaks with Spain's defender Dani Carvajal. AFP

Spain's coach Fernando Hierro (L) speaks with Spain's defender Dani Carvajal. AFP

Clearly frustrated by having only drawn the Portugal game in spite of having more chances, Spain rang in the changes for this encounter. Though he was under the spotlight the previous time, David de Gea enjoyed coach Fernando Hierro’s vote of confidence between the sticks. Spain opted for a straight swap between Real Madrid teammates Nacho and Dani Carvajal; instead of Koke clogging up the central midfield, the plucky Lucas Vasquez was brought in the right side of midfield to provide more width.

The match lived up to billing in terms of the tactics: Spain played the merry-go-round with the ball in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Isco and Andres Iniesta frequently swapping positions. They also played an extremely high line throughout the match, and it was not uncommon to see all their outfield players in the Iranian half when they were in possession (which was most of the time); having crowded the opposition half, they also often won the ball high up, swooping on the Iranian players like they were prey.

The Iranians too seemed to be prepared for this encounter. With the three points in their kitty in their opening match against Morocco, they wanted a draw from this match, and brought in Mehdi Taremi, Majid Hosseini and Saeid Ezzatollahi. An unfazed, well prepared Iran lined up in a 6-4-0 (or was it a 7-3-1?) formation in the manner of the proverbial Jose Mourinho bus; a back line of six served as their last line of defence (which had kept 18 clean sheets in their last 22 matches). Though they seemed intent on defence, there were question marks on where the goal would come from, in case the Spaniards managed to score.

And that is what Spain were looking for. Spain were quick off the blocks, moving the ball around in the opening few minutes and looking for an early blow (à la Portugal in the opening game). In the opening exchanges, Spain chose to attack mainly on the left with schemers Iniesta, Isco, and left-back Jordi Alba being heavily involved. Isco and Iniesta were hoping to drag the resolute Iranian defence around, but they weren’t biting. The result? Spain had only one shot on goal in a tepid first half, that too off a plain David Silva free-kick.

Silva was also in the middle of the best Spanish chances in the first half—an attempted overhead kick in the 30th minute, and a deflected shot in added time. There was also a touch of disbelief when Mehdi broke the Spanish offside trap and found himself in unfamiliar territory in the 17th minute; his wasteful end product represented the best Iranian chance of that half. Overall, the Iranians were the more pleased of the two at the end of the first half, and their fans made their feelings known by cheering loudly as the players walked off the pitch.

The Spaniards eventually broke the deadlock, breaking Iranian hearts early in the second half, but not before some thrills. Iran didn’t clear their lines in the 50th minute, and Busquets clipped a shot towards the Iranian goal. Iran’s lanky goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand almost messed up the save, but managed to put the ball out of danger before a lurking Vasquez could take advantage. On the other end, Karim’s shot rippled the net, eliciting gasps around the stadium; the problem? It was the side netting.

Almost immediately, Spain took the lead through Diego Costa’s unintended shot. Iniesta shrugged off a challenge in midfield and rolled the ball in Costa’s path in the 54th minute. A couple of ricochets later, the ball found the net. Replays showed that the ball had come off Costa’s knee in the last touch, but he wasn’t complaining as he wheeled off in celebration. Though the goal had put the Iranians behind, it didn’t dent their resolve. Iran adopted a more adventurous approach in attack, now that they needed to score at least one of their own.

Against Spain, an aerial ball usually represents the best chance to score, and this was almost repeated by Iran. In the 60th minute, Mehdi headed wide from a promising position off a cross from the right wing. And in the 62nd minute, Ezatolahi seemed to have drawn Iran level, bundling the ball from close range, much to the delight of the Iranian supporters. Their joy was short-lived though as the goal was ruled out for offside by VAR. Iran would rue a couple of more missed chances later in the half, both off floated balls into the penalty area, and that was that. By the time the final whistle was blown, it was a relief for Spain who had grabbed full points against a stubborn side.

On the evidence of the opening two matches, Spain don’t look like the heavyweight contenders that drubbed Argentina 6-1 three months ago. While their predictable plan A is good, they lack a credible plan B, especially against sides who are not intent on playing ball and sit back in defence. Costa was supposed to be the anarchist wrecking ball, and he seems to have grabbed three goals to make him the joint second top scorer, but he still doesn’t dovetail into the Spanish attack in a manner of David Villa or Fernando Torres. And, they still remain vulnerable to the floated ball in defence. Spain have to find these answers soon, or they will not progress far into the tournament.

Plenty of positives for Iran from this match—they kept Spain at bay for large periods of the match and came close to scoring one of their own which would have made matters interesting; plus, this defeat wasn’t as heartbreaking as the one against Argentina four years ago when Messi scored in added time. Now their last game pits them against coach Carlos Queiroz’s former side, Portugal.

The last set of fixtures will decide who will qualify, and who will top group B. Iran need to win the next match to be sure of qualification, whereas the Iberian neighbours need a draw. If Portugal and Spain both win, the one who scores more goals will top the group. Who would you rather prefer—Uruguay or Russia?

One thing is for sure—a goal for Iran in the last match will set the cat amongst the pigeons.

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Updated Date: Jun 21, 2018 11:24 AM

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