A goal from Iago Aspas in second-half stoppage time earned Spain a dramatic 2-2 draw against Morocco and top spot in World Cup Group B on Monday night at the Kaliningrad Stadium in Kaliningrad.
It was far from convincing from La Roja, but enough to earn them first place in the group thanks in large part to Aspas’ VAR-aided goal and a late Iran equaliser against Portugal, reducing Cristiano Ronaldo & Co. to second place in the group.
Spain will meet Russia in the next round on Sunday, while Portugal will square off against Group A winners Uruguay.
Coach Fernando Hierro made just one change from the team that defeated Iran last week, with Thiago coming in for Lucas Vazquez in midfield.
It didn’t take long for the pulses of both teams to get racing, as LaLiga rivals Nordin Amrabat and Sergio Ramos had a testy exchange in the first few minutes.
Spain were a bit nervy and it showed in the back as miscommunication between Sergio Ramos and Andres Iniesta gifted the opening goal to Khalid Boutaib, who swooped in and picked the ball off right in front of the two before slotting home past goalkeeper David De Gea to hand Morocco a shock 1-0 lead.
The reaction from Spain was immediate. Just five minutes later La Roja pulled back level 1-1 with a fine sequence of passing that ended with Iniesta finding Isco, who powered in the equaliser.
Still, the Spain defence looked out of sorts and off a throw-in Boutaib almost scored his second but was denied by De Gea. Spain were mostly in control though and almost took a lead right before half-time only to see Diego Costa fail to connect with Iniesta’s cross.
Amrabat issued a warning early in the second half that Morocco weren’t about to go away, as the Leganes man rocketed a swerving right-footer that banged off the crossbar and out.
La Roja also had a chance to take the lead in the first part of the second stanza when an Isco header looked goalbound, but Morocco defender Romain Saiss’ last-gasp headed clearance kept things level.
Hierro turned to his bench in search of a spark and a second goal, with Iago Aspas replacing Costa and Marco Asensio on for Thiago. The introduction of the pair did little to change the tone of the match. Spain still looked slow and tired, with little punch to their attack.
Spain’s failure to take advantage of possession would prove costly. With just 10 minutes remaining and on one of the few ventures forward for the Morocco attack, substitute Youssef En-Nesyri of Malaga beat Ramos in the air on a corner kick and smacked a header past De Gea to give Morocco a stunning 2-1 lead.
With little time to respond, Hierro quickly made his third change, hauling off David Silva for Rodrigo.
Spain threw everything at their nearby neighbors and in stoppage time Dani Carvajal connected with Aspas, who used a backheel to redirect in the Real Madrid man’s cross. Initially the Celta striker was adjudged to be offside, but VAR said otherwise and the goal stood, giving Spain the 2-2 result and top spot in the group.