Spain beat Iran 1-0 here in Kazan. But rarely can a victory have been as hard won. Iran were simply magnificent in their collective obduracy. Rarely can the old coaching maxim of don’t leave anything on the pitch have been so played out as it was by this Iran team. Against their elevated opponents, the players of Iran gave their all, several of them collapsing to the turf on the final whistle, exhausted by their heroic effort.
“We have three more points,” said the Spain coach, Fernando Hierro, sounding the most relieved man west of Vladivostock. “But it was a very tough game, they are very strong physically.”
His full back Carlos Cavarjal was less diplomatic: “That was not football, that was a betrayal,” the Barcelona man said of Iran’s approach.
Try telling that to their fans. 20,000 Iranians filled the Kazan Arena with an astonishing level of support. Many of them had come from Tehran armed with plastic horns. It was like 2010 all over again, the stadium resounding to the sort of soundtrack we had hoped was consigned to history after the South Africa World Cup. But no, this was a bad case of deja vuvuzela.
And nothing seemed to suppress the noise; even when their goalkeeper caught it the stadium superstructure was in danger.
Yet if there is any team in the world who can be relied upon to dull the excitement of the opposition supporters it is Spain. And as the slick, sophisticated interchanges of Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Isco began to spin across the turf, it seemed silence would soon prevail.
But like their wonderfully stubborn team, these Iranian fans were made of sterner stuff, refusing to be cowed by Spain enjoying 81 per cent of the first half possession. With a huge contingent of women amongst their support, many enjoying the freedom of dispensing with the strict dress code of home, they provided a field day for the Russian television director who likes his cameras to pick out attractive females.
And if it was the destructive virtues they enjoyed, the Iran fans had much to cheer. Their coach Carlos Queiroz had instructed his team to harry and chase, to snap and snipe. For the first 45 minutes, with six players strung across in a line in front of goalkeeper Ali Beiranvand, they presented a solid red wall. When Silva found himself in space in the Iran box and unleashed a goalbound shot, at least three defenders launched themselves at the ball, deflecting it away. This was the performance of a side determined to give everything for the cause.
And Spain, normally so calm and patient in possession, seemed initially rattled by the foaming fury of their opponents. Gerard Pique who can normally land a ball on a sixpence, spooned a pass out into touch. Diego Costa found his match in Beiranvand, who, after the Spain’s Brazilian launched a typically Costa verbal flurry in his direction, went down as if he had been hit by a sledgehammer.
And even as Iran hit and hoofed, spoiled and sniped, putting together just 49 passes in the first half, still the horns bellowed.
Iran had not lost in 22 competitive matches since the last World Cup (they were beaten on penalties in the last Asian Championship). In 18 of those games they kept clean sheets. And here was vivid demonstration of how they did it: they defended as if their life depended on it.
Spain came out from half time with a flurry, determined to quell the resistance. Busquets’s long range shot was saved by Beiranvand, who then scooped the ball away from Vasquez. Then Isco blasted over.
For a moment it looked as if such profligacy might be costly. From a long Iranian throw the ball fell to Karim Ansarifard, the Olympiakos player, who hammered a shot into the side netting.
But then, on 54 minutes, Costa barrelled into the box, twisting, turning, snorting. Rami Rezaien tried to tackle him, but the ball bounced off Costa’s knee beyond Beiranvand’s reach. It was a very Costa-ish goal: belligerent, bullish and suffused with good fortune. And Iran had their own slice of luck when, after a goalline scramble that resembled a WWE bout, the ball somehow stayed out of their net.
Now Queiroz had to change tactics, hanging on for the point was no longer an option. He sent on Alireza Jahanbakhsh, of AZ Alkmaar, the only Asian to top the scoring tables in any top European league. Finally Iran began to charge forward.
And they did have the ball in the net when Saaid Ezatolahi bundled home, but the referee brought the premature celebrations billowing in the stands to a shuddering halt by referring the incident to the video assistant, who informed him the linesman was right to notice offside in the build up. Queiroz afterwards revealed that such had been the tension, a member of his staff had collapsed during the VAR hiatus and was taken to hospital (he was later discharged).
Perhaps driven by adversity, Iran were nothing if not determined. Now bellowed on by their wonderful support, they kept trying to get the ball up to Azmoun and Jahanbakhsh, kept trying to break through Spain’s careful possession.
But no matter how they toiled and sweated Iran were up against opponents who know better than any side in international football knows how to kill a game. They made their triangles, they took an age on every set piece, Costa ambled off when substituted as if on an afternoon stroll. And crucially, for all their magnificent intensity, Iran had no Cristiano Ronaldo to deliver a point out of nothing at the death.
Tight at the top
This is what it all means for the Group B table. All to play for (unless you are Morocco)...
History (sort of)
1-0 - Iran 0-1 Spain means that all three matches today ended in a 1-0 scoreline. The only other days in World Cup history to see three 1-0 wins in a single day were June 25th 1982 (3) and June 23rd 2010 (3). Narrow.#IRNESP#IRN#ESP#WorldCup— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 20, 2018
0 - There have been no 0-0 draws in any of the 20 games at the 2018 World Cup so far - the last time that this happened was in 1954 (no 0-0's in the 26-game tournament). Goals.#IRNESP#ESP#IRN#WorldCup— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 20, 2018
Spain did it. They finally broke Iran down, courtesy of a big ricochet and a goal that Costa knew very little about. Iran defended resolutely and could even have shared the points. They, correctly, had a goal disallowed and came close a couple of times late on. As it is, there is all to play for with everyone to play one more game in the group.
Iran 0 Spain 1
90+3 mins - Iran 0 Spain 1
A long lump fails to find an Iranian player. And again. They are trying, without having anything fall for them. Here comes a long throw, though... Mohammadi will fling the ball into the Spain box. He gives it a kiss, then does a somersault and bails out! What on earth was that?!? His second attempt is to a player nearby instead and the move peters out.
90+2 mins - Iran 0 Spain 1
Ebrahimi is shown yellow for a foul on Rodrigo and that means Spain have a free-kick about 25 yards out on the left flank. Isco takes, but it fails to beat the first Iranian defender. Plenty of time was wasted, though.
90 mins - Iran 0 Spain 1
Spain are keeping possession smartly now, with Iran run-ragged from all of their defensive work earlier in the match. Four minutes of stoppage time to be played.
88 mins - Iran 0 Spain 1
Costa's night is up, to be replaced by the Valencia striker Rodrigo.
87 mins - Iran 0 Spain 1
Back to front, front to back from Spain. That will take up another minute. Almost there.
85 mins - Iran 0 Spain 1
Spain just need to take the sting out of this now. Or score again. One of those two things, you know.
83 mins - Iran 0 Spain 1
That is an enormous chance for Iran!!!! Amiri nutmegs Pique on the left and delivers a sublime cross to Taremi at the far post. He rises to meet the ball inside the six-yard box and has a whole heap of goal to aim at, but his header flies over the bar. So close. So very close.
81 mins - Iran 0 Spain 1
Sexy stuff from Isco to beat a smattering of Iran players before playing and receiving a one-two to drive into the penalty area where he is put on his backside by a crunching tackle.
79 mins - Iran 0 Spain 1
Amiri is booked for a rash challenge on Carvajal. Then Vazquez heads off to be replaced by Asensio.
77 mins - Iran 0 Spain 1
Spain have a free-kick here in a great position 20 yards from goal and to the right. Surely this is perfect for the left foot of Silva... nope, Isco has a go with his right peg and the wall jump to keep it out.
75 mins - Iran 0 Spain 1
What a ball from the substitute Mohammadi, who crosses wonderfully from the left flank, but it sails about two yards in front of the onrushing Taremi and out for a goal kick. They are certainly giving it some.
71 mins - Iran 0 Spain 1
A couple of changes. Mohammadi is on in place of the injured Safi, while Koke replaces the ageing Iniesta.
70 mins - Iran 0 Spain 1
A touch of magic down the left from Iniesta, whose close control is superb and Spain win a corner. I'm not sure how describe what then happens... The ball is worked low to the near post and then back to Ramos whose shot it blocked on the line. From that moment about half a dozen Iranian players fling themselves on top of the ball and Spain cannot hack it over the line. The ultimate bundle. Brilliant Sunday League football. Heartening stuff.
67 mins - Iran 0 Spain 1
It's almost like a normal football match now. You know, when both sides try to score. All sorts of space all over the pitch.
65 mins - Iran 0 Spain 1
Nothing the Iranian players can really argue about there. Replays showed Ezatolahi was definitely offisde. This game is so much more open now.
Ezatolahi was inches offside when the cross was swung in! Oh deary me. Wow.
Still we wait to hear if it offside...
Iran have a free-kick about 30 yards out on the right here. Can they conjure something? YES THEY CAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The cross comes in, there is an almighty scramble and then Ezatolahi bundles into the net. But they are checking VAR for offside...
60 mins - Iran 0 Spain 1
Iran are looking to build attacking moves now, throwing more bodies forward and it is Taremi who rises highest to meet a cross from the right. He cannot get his header on target though and it trickles past the far post.
58 mins - Iran 0 Spain 1
It's immediately apparent that the game is more open since that goal. Iran cannot afford to just sit back as they have been up until now. The result may well be more goals.
56 mins - Iran 0 Spain 1
Well, well, well. What does that mean for Iran's tactics now?
Costa scores his 3rd of the tournament. Only a great striker can finish like that. ��— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) June 20, 2018
Finally Spain find a way through. Iniesta plays in Costa, who attempts to turn inside the Iran penalty area. Rezaeian comes across to make the tackle, but the ball ricochets straight into Costa's shin and then the bottom corner of the net. I'm not sure if Costa knew anything about that.
53 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
Oh my word! Everyone thought Iran had just scored!!!! A long throw is headed to Ansarifard who absolutely drills the ball towards the Spain goal from just inside the penalty area. De Gea is stood helpless and watching as the ball flies inches wide of the near post and into the side-netting.
52 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
It looks like Spain have sent their wingers a lot wider in this half in an attempt to stretch the game across the pitch. And it looks to be having a bit more success, with greater space to work a move from. This time it comes from the right and the ball is pulled back to Isco, who fires over the bar.
50 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
Close again for Spain as Pique meets a corner and nods towards goal, but he cannot get enough on it and the man on the line hacks it away. The ball is then worked to Busquets who lets fly from 25 yards. Beiranvand dives to his left and palms it up, before then flapping it away with Vazquez advancing on him.
48 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
As was entirely predictable, both sides have instantly slotted into their same positions as the first half.
Not sure if it's some sort of cry for help, but Spain appear to be passing themselves a picture of Vicente del Bosque's face pic.twitter.com/oyesO5RqQV— Adam Hurrey (@FootballCliches) June 20, 2018
47 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
The Spanish players were in the referee's ear quite a lot in the tunnel before they came out. I suspect they might have been moaning about the Iranian players' time-wasting and, how to put this neatly, erm... gamesmanship at times. I'll be honest, I didn't see anything wrong with their behaviour in the first half. But maybe that's just me.
The second half begins.
What a man
These are brilliant:
This is as one-sided a game as you will ever see. It's total attack against defence, but Iran have been superb. If they hold out for 90 minutes it will be a phenomenal defensive performance. Every time a Spanish player has the ball in the final third, there is a man in red snapping at his heels or throwing his body in front of him. And Beiranvand has barely been troubled in goal. Strange. Very strange. But fascinating.
Iran 0 Spain 0 - Well, somehow Iran have survived a half and they are treated to a breather.
45+1 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
Close for Spain as Silva shoots from the edge of the box, but yet another Iran defender flings himself at the ball and deflects it wide for a corner that comes to nothing.
45 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
Three minutes of stoppage time to be played.
44 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
Iran are now just thumping the ball upfield and waiting for the next wave of attack. And again. And again. And again. There is zero attempt to retain possession.
42 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
For all the magicians in the Spanish midfield, they just cannot find a way through. Isco does well to cross low from the left and pick out Iniesta, but the (soon to be) Barcelona man is pounced upon in a flash. I can imagine Spain fans are starting to get very frustrated.
40 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
What's happened here? Iran's keeper Beiranvard has gone down and reckons there was some sort of stamp from Costa, who - you probably don't need me to say - is vociferously protesting his innocence. Replays show it is a lot of fuss over nothing. Costa's foot possibly connected with Beiranvard's toes as the keeper picked up the ball, but there wasn't anything in it.
37 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
Now Iran have a corner! Pique was forced to head an incoming cross behind his own goal. Ansarifard will take the corner, but it is headed easily away.
35 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
Iran have a throw-in deep inside the Spanish half and the crowd have gone berserk! Safi will attempt the long throw into the box, but the chance is cleared in a flash.
33 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
The Iranians have almost stopped even bothering to try and venture in the Spain half. They are exerting so much energy just keeping the opposition out. Surely this cannot last 90 minutes. They are playing as though this is the 88th minute of a match, not the 33rd.
30 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
A gorgeous one-two between Iniesta and Isco finally sees Spain work their way into the Iranian penalty area, but Iniesta's shot is brilliantly blocked on its way to goal. That was a touch of magic from Isco to find his team-mate. The corner falls to Silva, but he cannot keep his shot down to test the keeper.
28 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
These average touch positions tell a story. Only three outfield players in the Spanish half!
26 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
It's total one-way traffic, but it's been quite an engrossing start to this match. A bruising start as well, with tackles flying in all over the place.
24 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
... Silva will be the man to take with his left foot. He strikes it well, but straight into the midriff of Beiranvard, via a deflection off the wall.
23 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
And Spain earn another free-kick marginally closer to goal. I suspect one of Spain's players with greater finesse will take this one, rather than Ramos...
22 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
"It's an attack v defence training session," says Clive Tyldesley. "But they know what they are doing," adds Glenn Hoddle, of Iran's defence.
Spain have earned a free-kick about 25 yards out from goal, though, and Ramos looks as though he fancies it. But his shot fails to beat the wall.
20 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
The Iran tactic is quite clear: defend, defend, defend, defend, and then hope to snaffle something on the break. And the defending part is working a treat so far. They look so tightly drilled, but can they keep it up for 90 minutes?
19 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
Just a hint of space opens up for Silva, which allows the Manchester City man to have a crack from outside the penalty area, but it cracks into a red-shirted defender and away to safety. Iran seem to have a line of six men in defence when Spain have the ball.
17 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
The racket whenever an Iranian player gets on the ball is very impressive. They must have a hell of a lot of fans inside the stadium.
And they have something to cheer here as Taremi receives the ball behind the Spanish defence and everyone seems to stop while waiting for an offside flag to be raised. It never comes though, so Taremi hares forward and crosses into the penalty area, but there is no one to get on the end of it.
15 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
Spain are struggling slightly at the moment to penetrate this Iranian team, which has been set up tightly with men behind the ball.
13 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
It's pretty niggly out there at the moment. Both sides committing plenty of fouls, before arguing profusely with the referee. All very tiresome.
12 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
A little bit of breaking news from the England camp (and this is not a joke): Gareth Southgate has dislocated his shoulder while out running!!!!!!!
10 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
This could be dangerous. Iran concede a free-kick about 10 yards in from the left and 10 yards from the penalty area. Isco will be the man to whip it in... no he won't, the left-footed Alba crosses instead, the ball flicks off Pique's head and out for a throw on the other side of the pitch.
8 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
The first (of what will presumably be many) talking to of the evening for Ramos after a foul near the middle of the pitch. Not sure there was anything in it as the two men went up for a header together.
6 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
Oh what have we here? Here come the Iranians as Azmoun gets in behind the Spain defence and finds Amiri, who darts to the byline and is bundled over to win a free-kick by the corner flag. Can they produce something from this? No. The cross is headed clear by Pique.
4 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
Early impressions: Spain are going to see a lot of the ball during this match. Iran are going to sit back and be as physical as possible.
Beiranvand is called into action for the first time to punch a loopy cross into the night before Carvajal slashes a long-range shot a long way high and wide.
2 mins - Iran 0 Spain 0
Huge noise from the Iranian contingent inside the stadium. Quite a din in Kazan.
Spain, in white, get this match underway. Iran in red. let's go.
Ready for action
The players are out and it's national anthem time.
Bit excessive. Then again, if it rains and he hadn't laminated them, we'd be ripping into him pic.twitter.com/yCB7vFngP0— Adam Hurrey (@FootballCliches) June 20, 2018
Here's the scene in Kazan
My mate Messi
Some more pre-reading for you comes in the form of the latest column from our new Telegraph Sport columnist Cesc Fabregas. This one is entitled:
Here's an extract:
People want to put Leo up against Cristiano and of course they both need each other to make themselves better, but we are talking about different teams, different groups, different moments. I think they just respect each other and get on with it. It’s been going on too long for either of them to get annoyed by it.
When I went to Arsenal, we lost a little bit of contact, but when I re-signed for Barcelona the friendship grew very quickly again and we had a great connection on the pitch, especially in my first season back. In the first seven games, he had nine goals and I had five, and we were both making assists for each other. It was incredible.
Ins and outs
So, two changes from the Spain side who drew with Portugal. Nacho is dropped after his wonder-goal and replaced by Dani Carvajal, while Lucas Vazquez comes in for Koke.
Iran have tinkered slightly more with Majid Hosseini, Saeid Ezatolahi and Mehdi Taremi all brought into the side.
The teams are in
Some news from Group A is that it's all been decided just two games in. Uruguay have just beaten Saudi Arabia 1-0, which means both Russia and Uruguay are through to the last-16. Those two sides face each other next Monday to see who tops the group.
Open to all
While we await the team news, I recommend reading this piece by our man Jim White on the ground in Kazan:
Here's an extract:
For Kiana and Paria, two twenty-something women from Iran, this World Cup has been a liberating experience. For a start, the two of them have been able to do something they never have been able to do in their own country: go to a football match. In fact, earlier this year, when Paria tried to attend a game in her home city she was arrested. The charge was offending public decency. “I love sport, I love football and in Iran women can’t go to watch,” she explains. “One night I try. I go to the game and I went to jail.”
It happened in March. A rumour was circulating that the Iranian government had relaxed the strict rules preventing women from showing their enthusiasm for the sport. “We had heard it was OK,” says Paria. “We thought they were allowing us.” So she and her boyfriend headed off to see the Tehran derby between Persepolis and Esteghlal.
But it was not OK, things had not changed. Along with 29 other women who had mistakenly smelled a whiff of liberalisation in the wind, the moment she tried to go through the turnstiles, Paria was arrested and taken to the police station. Her crime? Being a woman in an all-male environment.
Favourites vs Table Toppers
No one would have predicted that in a group featuring Spain, Portugal and Morocco, it would be Iran who ended the first round of games top of the table. But that is exactly where Carlos Queiroz's side found themselves when they woke up this morning.
In many senses their 1-0 victory over Morocco was somewhat fortunate, gifted to them courtesy of a 95th-minute Aziz Bouhaddouz own-goal. But such a simple reading of that triumph is to do Iran a disservice. Yes, Morocco dominated possession, but Iran's defence held tight throughout, offering the opposition few clear-cut chances. As for Iran's attacking threat at the other end of the pitch... well, yes, there wasn't much to say about that.
And, in all honesty, there shouldn't be much tonight either. For all their table-topping exploits, Iran are facing a significant step up here against a Spanish side who impressed many people despite only drawing their opening encounter with Portugal.
After the crazy build-up that saw them sack their head coach barely 48 hours before kick-off, the Spaniards showed plenty of class and would have won with relative ease were it not for the individual brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo (and a couple of glaring errors).
With Germany losing, Brazil and Argentina drawing, and France looking highly unconvincing in victory over Australia, Spain's draw only seemed to strengthen their hopes of winning this tournament.
At their best, no other nation in the world can come close to the beauty of their football and, providing they are over any opening match jitters, this Iranian side are not expected to trouble them much. Indeed, you can get 20/1 on Queiroz's lads emerging victorious tonight.
Whether the reality is so straightforward will be known in a few hours. I have predicted a 2-0 win to Spain, although I am firmly entrenched near the bottom of our Team Telegraph World Cup prediction competition so I am not a man to be trusted.
For what it's worth: Iran are guaranteed a place in the last-16 if they win tonight.