Viet Nam News
KALININGRAD — Iago Aspas came off the bench to score a stunning late goal as Spain secured a berth in the World Cup round of 16 with a dramatic 2-2 draw against Morocco here on Monday.
Needing at least a draw to be guaranteed of a place in the first knockout stage, Spain looked in danger of being eliminated when Yousseff En-Nesyri, also a second-half substitute, gave Morocco the lead with an 81st-minute header.
But Aspas equalized in the second minute of stoppage time with a delicate flick that was originally ruled out for offside before the decision was overturned by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR).
Khalid Boutaib had given the African side the lead in the first half before Spain drew level through Real Madrid midfielder Isco.
The result means that Spain finished the tournament’s first stage as Group B leaders and they will now face hosts Russia in the round of 16 on July 1. Portugal also progressed to the next phase by taking second spot after drawing with Iran 1-1 in the other match.
Their group rivals Iran and Morocco were eliminated, with this result giving the African side their only point.
The tone was set for a physical match in the opening minutes at Kaliningrad Stadium, with both sides committing strong challenges early. Nordin Amrabat was involved in a skirmish with Diego Costa and Gerard Pique was lucky not to be sanctioned for a studs-up challenge on striker Boutaib.
Morocco struck against the run of play in the 13th minute after a rare error from Andres Iniesta, who failed to control the ball on the halfway line. A moment’s hesitation from Sergio Ramos then allowed Boutaib to pounce and gallop clear on goal.
Despite the best efforts of Pique to close him down, the Yeni Malatyaspor striker held his nerve to fire the ball in between David de Gea’s legs.
It took five minutes for Iniesta to atone for his mistake. The former Barcelona midfielder ran onto a Costa pass in the left channel and pulled the ball back from the byline, allowing Isco to smash into the top corner.
Despite the early breakthrough, Spain continued to look uneasy against Morocco’s high pressing. Boutaib was again presented with a chance following another turnover, but his shot was blocked by De Gea.
Hakim Ziyech then sent Spanish hearts fluttering when his long range shot flew just over the bar.
Spain were also creating plenty of chances, particularly through Iniesta, who was causing problems for Morocco right-back Nabil Dirar with his clever runs into the penalty area. The 34-year-old again hit the byline at pace but an onrushing Costa just failed to reach his cross into the six-yard box.
Despite allowing Spain to dominate possession, Morocco posed an ever-constant threat on the few occasions that they raided forward.
Boutaib went inches away from a second goal by sending an audacious 25-yard shot with the outside of his right boot cannoning off the top of the left post, with De Gea unmoved on the line.
With Iniesta and Isco dictating terms, Spain at times looked as though they were taking part in a training exercise as they passed the ball around at will.
But the 2010 world champions were guilty of spurning three chances in short succession; Isco and Pique failing to hit the target with headers and Thiago Alcantara pulling a shot wide from the edge of the box.
Spain coach Fernando Hierro brought on Aspas and Marco Asensio with a double change in the 74th minute in a bid to give his team a spark.
But it was the decision by Morocco coach Herve Renard to replace Boutaib with En-Nesyri that changed the course of the match, at least initially. The Malaga forward rose highest to meet a Faycal Fajr corner with a powerful header that left De Gea with no chance and handed his team their first goal of the tournament.
Morocco celebrated wildly but Spain were not finished. Dani Carvajal whipped in a cross from the right and Aspas timed his run into the box superbly before turning and sending a sublime backheel flick beyond the reach of Monir El Kajoui. — XINHUA