Spain clinch late equaliser to top Group B by the skin of their teeth against valiant Morocco as VAR controversy reigns

Jeremy Wilson
Iago Aspas scores Spain's late (and controversial) equaliser  - REUTERS

As this match entered added time, Spain were staring into the abyss. Their ongoing participation in the 2018 World Cup had slipped out of their hands and they were reliant only on their great rivals, Portugal, continuing to frustrate Iran. 

Seven extraordinary minutes later and, after a back-heeled volley, a major Video Assistant Referee controversy, several scuffles and a mini pitch-invasion, they were somehow into the last 16 as Group B winners.

Fernando Hierro’s team were ultimately rescued here by Iago Aspas’s wonderfully improvised finish but, with his goal having initially been ruled out for offside and then narrowly reinstated by the VAR, but all the late drama still papered over some quite alarming cracks.

It also provoked fury from within the Morocco squad. They had been within grasp of one of their most famous ever wins and, amid angry pitchside exchanges between members of the respective backroom teams, Hierro later stressed that his coaches had not requested the use of technology. Morocco winger Nordin Amrabat still could not contain his frustration, mouthing the words, “VAR is b-------” into a camera as he left the pitch.

Morocco forward Aziz Bouhaddouz also again brought up the defeat against Portugal, arguing that his team had “no luck” and bluntly describing the refereeing as “s---”. 

It was easy to sympathise with Morocco’s disappointment after three matches in which one point did not do justice to their performances, even if the technology here did eventually ensure the correct decision. Indeed, while the possession statistics will confirm that Spain were their typically dominant selves on the ball, the real story of the match was their quite shocking defensive vulnerability.

Gerard Pique made a reckless two-footed lunge at Khalid Boutaib but escaped VAR scrutiny and a red card Credit: AP Photo/Michael Sohn

Russia await at the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday and, if the hosts can organise themselves effectively, they certainly have the counter-attacking qualities to seriously trouble the 2010 champions. With Sergio Ramos especially poor – and involved in a terrible mix-up for the first and then beaten aerially for Youssef En-Nesyri’s brilliantly headed goal – this was a match that Liverpool fans would certainly have enjoyed. 

It was noticeable that Hierro repeatedly refused to comment on the individual performance of any of his defenders. “Personal grades are for in-house,” said Hierro. “We need to look at the silver lining but we have to be self-critical. To concede five goals in three games is not the way forward. We were lucky. If other teams score so easily, it will be very difficult to reach our goal.”

Boutaib scores the opener Credit: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

The whistles that had earlier rung at around Kaliningrad from the moment Spain kicked off told you everything about the supporter imbalance. While Moroccans made up most of the crowd, blue empty seats also comfortably outnumbered the 1,000 or so Spain fans in this most western corner of Russia.

Spain’s starting team was still vastly experienced. Five of their 10 outfield players had already won more than 100 caps and yet there was a curious edginess about their approach. Gerard Pique, who would also have a torrid evening, soon dived in with an inexplicably wild challenge on Morocco striker Khalid Boutaib that could very easily have provoked a straight red.

Ramos and Andres Iniesta, who have collectively played 285 times for Spain, then combined to make an error straight out of a video of parks-football bloopers. Both decided to leave the ball and, with only a loud touchline scream of “One of you!” missing from a scene straight off Hackney Marshes, Boutaib gratefully surged clear on David de Gea’s goal and side-footed his finish between the Manchester United goalkeeper’s legs. 

Lucas Vazquez and Sergio Ramos celebrate after the referee used VAR to overrule the offside call on Iago Aspas' equaliser Credit: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

The goal did provoke rather more urgency from Spain. Iniesta soon combined delightfully with Isco and, after an exchange of passes, quite effortlessly nudged the ball back into the Real Madrid midfielder’s path to equalise. 

Spain almost immediately fell back to sleep. A simple long throw was all it took to then again release Boutaib but De Gea this time managed to block the subsequent shot for what was his first actual save of the World Cup. 

Morocco’s tally of four yellow cards in the opening 45 minutes told you everything about how much they wanted to win and they maintained their threat at the start of the second half. Amrabat spectacularly beat De Gea with a powerful strike but it just did not quite curl back sufficiently and smashed off the inside angle of post and bar. 

Hakim Ziyech claimed a penalty when his volley bounced off Pique’s arm and, from Faycal Fajr’s resulting corner, En-Nesyri rose above Ramos to head Morocco into the lead. The drama had not ended. A desperate last gasp injury-time cross came in for Aspas, who improvised wonderfully to back-heel his finish past goalkeeper Monir El Kajoui. 

The offside flag went up. VAR intervened. 

News then filtered through that Portugal had also been held and it is somehow Spain who will face Russia in Moscow this Sunday.   

9:23PM

Opta's statistical pointers

  • Spain remain unbeaten in 23 matches (W15 D8) since losing to Italy at Euro 2016.
  • Spain have failed to win their final group game of a World Cup tournament for the first time since 1982, having won each of the previous eight such games before today.
  • Spain have finished the group stages unbeaten for the first time since 2006, when they won all three matches, losing at least once in each of the last two editions of the competition (2010 and 2014).
  • Spain are now winless in each of the last four World Cup games in which they have conceded first, losing two and drawing two.
  • Morocco have now won just one of their last 10 World Cup matches (D2 L7).
  • Sergio Ramos made his 16th appearance for Spain at the World Cup in this game, overtaking Xavi as their most capped outfielder in the competition.
  • Iago Aspas has been directly involved in 10 goals in his 10 appearances as a substitute for the Spanish national team (six goals, four assists).
  • Khalid Boutaïb’s goal for Morocco was his side’s 29th shot at this year’s World Cup, and their first goal in the competition since 1998 when Salaheddine Bassir scored their final goal in a 3-0 win over Scotland.
  • Isco has been directly involved in 12 goals in his last 15 international matches for Spain (10 goals, 2 assists).
  • Despite not scoring against Morocco, Diego Costa is just the sixth Spanish player to score at least three goals in the first-round group phase of a World Cup, and the first since David Villa in 2010.

9:03PM

The difference in stats

And the possession is exactly as you might imagine:

 

9:01PM

VAR controversy

I love VAR but my word it's causing some talking points. It worked perfectly here tonight though - without it, Spain would have been denied a legitimate equalising goal. It's not as easy as it looks either...

test - do not delete

 

8:55PM

FULL TIME

And that's it! What a game! End-to-end, goals, controversy - everything!

8:53PM

90 mins+5 - Spain 2 Morocco 2

The real controversy there was that the linesman put up his flag when he probably shouldn't have done. The entire group has changed in a matter of moments because Iran have just equalised!

8:52PM

90 mins+3 - Spain 2 Morocco 2

It's all a bit hectic now. Players are arguing on the pitch, getting all heated and worked up... and I can't tell if the final whistle might have gone. Hakimi is booked for dissent.

8:51PM

VAR SAYS GOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLL!!!

Iago Aspas has equalised for Spain!

VAR has that right, it's so marginal but you can see on the replay that Aspas is just onside.

8:49PM

GOOOOOOAAAAA - DISALLOWED!

Spain have the ball in the net from a corner and Aspas scores! The linesman puts his flag up and says it's offside - but it isn't! The replay shows he's on! 

VAR decision pending!

8:47PM

90 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 2

I think it's safe to say Spain have been wasteful here. 

8:46PM

88 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 2

Spain pushing for the equaliser, Morocco equal to everything they throw at them. This will be a brilliant and hard-earned win if Morocco can hang on. 

8:44PM

86 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 2

Ziyach walks off the pitch slowly to be replaced by Bouhaddouz.

8:42PM

84 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 2

Spain are looking for the equaliser now but Morocco have everyone behind the ball. They're still committing little fouls, blocking the space, running faster and harder and longer than any Spain player. They seem quicker of thought too and Spain don't have any solutions.

Silva comes off, Rodrigo comes on. 

8:39PM

GOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAALLLLLLL!

WHAT A HEADER!

Morocco have a shock lead! It's an absolutely amazing header! En-Nesyri leaps highest, is stronger than Ramos and powers his header into the top corner! The crowd goes wild!

8:39PM

80 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Great play from Morocco. Skill out wide beats two players, gets the move going and a cross from wide is met by the striker in the middle and he shoots! Morocco want a penalty because it comes off Pique's hand. It's never a penalty. Corner to Morocco.

8:37PM

78 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Morocco are constantly fouling Spain players too, it's really difficult for the referee but it hardly seems fair that they're allowed to get so tight and come through the back of Spain players without threat of yellow card. It just means Spain can't do anything because they either lose the ball or win a free-kick in a largely harmless position.

8:35PM

76 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Isco's final ball has been poor tonight. Everything else is exceptional but the cross into the box keeps being underhit.

spain vs morocco

It's just this all game long now. Morocco have everyone back, everyone charges at the man on the ball, Spain have to go sideways.  I don't buy that it's admirable either. Anyone can defend like this and get a lucky result.

8:32PM

74 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Morocco are still working so hard off the ball to close every single thing down. Spain make two substitutions: Asensio and Aspas will come on for Costa and Thiago. 

8:31PM

72 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Another substitute for Morocco. Boutaib comes off and En-Neysri is on in his place.

8:28PM

70 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

 

8:27PM

69 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Morocco still have everyone behind the ball, Spain just passing from side to side without really being able to go anywhere else. Costa runs into space, the ball is played down the line by Alba and Thiago is teed up to shoot on the edge of the area! He blasts it way over the bar.

8:25PM

67 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Spain are passing around the Morocco half but it's a little slow... until Isco picks up the pace and links well with Silva on the right.

Martin Keown is criticising them for 'passing to death'. Hmmm.

8:23PM

64 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

David Silva is annoying Belhanda by standing near the goalkeeper and the referee has to keep an eye on things. The corner comes in and PIQUE IS THERE! He heads an inch wide of the far post! Great jump.

 

8:20PM

62 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Credit: AP

Morocco still so quick to close down every Spanish pass! The ball is out wide, crossed in and Isco jumps highest! He pushes the ball back the other way to the back post and it's going in! But the defender comes across and heads off the line!

8:18PM

60 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Amrabat puts his forearm up to block Iniesta, whacks him in the face and gives away a free-kick. No yellow card, which would have been his second...

Isco's delivery is really poor.

8:17PM

58 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Dirar is scaring Spain. "Whenever he goes running it's like he's been fired from a gun!" says Martin Keown, with good reason. He's sprinting at 1000mph up the pitch and Spain can't get close to him and it's only the last lines of defence that prevent Dirar causing damage.

8:14PM

55 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Morocco are working so hard here. They defend a corner and six players sprint up the pitch to take advantage of all the space Spain have left. Amrabat spots a chance to shoot and IT'S GOING IN! OFF THE BAR!

What an effort! This is sensational from Morocco. They'll be knackered by the 80th minute though...

8:11PM

53 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Spain have picked up the pace and found some of their rhythm. Morocco defending aggressively in midfield, hounding whoever's on the ball to try and give it back. 

8:10PM

51 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

De Gea does well here! The ball is chipped over the top of the Spain defence and the goalie is quick off his line to punch the ball away, right before the Moroccan forward can turn it into a goal.

8:07PM

49 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Morocco want a free-kick for a handball on Pique but the referee doesn't see it despite standing right next to the incident. That would have been in a decent position too. Morocco press high and as soon as Spain get past them drop everyone behind the ball to block all space.  

8:05PM

47 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Morocco do the first bit of attacking again but a cross from wide left goes straight behind for a goal kick. Morocco are pressing high to force Spain long from goal kicks.

8:03PM

KICK OFF 2

We're back! Will Morocco still be quite so wired? Kick-off is delayed to make sure that both matches start at the same time... but now we're off.

7:56PM

What the scores mean right now

 

7:52PM

Team shape

 

7:52PM

BBC's budget pundits

Leon Osman and Joleon Lescott have been summoned for the half-time punditry in the BBC's studio, which looks an awful lot like the same studio used in BBC Newsround during the 90s. 

Spain got caught out then by a determined, angry looking Morocco team but had the sheer class and patience to get back into it. I can see more goals coming in the second half!

7:47PM

HALF TIME

That was terrific. 

7:45PM

45 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Morocco now pressing high up the pitch to stop Spain passing out from the back so easily. They win a throw-in and the fans go absolutely wild. 

Alba gets up the pitch but gives away a goal kick.

7:43PM

43 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

 This graphic tells a story. Spain with heaps of passes but always going forward. Morocco going direct, quickly.

7:42PM

42 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

The free-kick is curled into the area, Busquets meets it at the back post but can't connect and Morocco clear. Spain build from the back again. 

7:40PM

40 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Isco runs himself into trouble and it's a late tackle by Boutaib... who hasn't been booked... but the referee doesn't show a yellow card.

Isco takes a ball to feet, turns his man and then nutmegs the next. Brilliant. Spain win a free-kick 35 yards out and that's a clear shirt pull, which again could be a yellow card.

7:37PM

38 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

BUSQUETS!!! He's missed a free header from the penalty spot. He had to score there! Morocco survive.

7:36PM

36 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Spain are really piling on the pressure. Busquets is spraying amazing passes out to the wide players, there's movement off the ball, Morocco are feisty and on yellow cards... but Silva's corner is caught by the goalkeeper.

Never mind, Spain are back in the Morocco final third again. Every first touch is perfect here and Iniesta is played in behind the defence again! His cut back is just behind his teammates in the box. 

Spain win another corner as Alba runs in behind.

7:34PM

34 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Spain's passing is really opening up spaces in the Morocco defence... but Costa's poor touch gives away a goal kick. 

 

7:32PM

32 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Another booking! Da Costa goes in the book for a clear foul on Isco! They're all fired up and it looks like Boussoufa has been booked for dissent, waving his finger in the referee's face. That's four yellows for Morocco already...

7:30PM

30 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Morocco are sitting back and launching long balls for the counter-attack. Amrabat could be away but steps on Ramos' heel and takes the boot off his foot. That's a yellow card and a free-kick for Spain. Ramos is receiving treatment for that one, which looked pretty sore.

7:28PM

28 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Isco has found space on the left wing, lays it back to Alba, who crosses and Morocco might be away! Iniesta slides into a challenge with Belhanda and stops the counter-attacking happening. Isco is causing Morocco real problems on the left wing and Carvajal is turning up wide right to offer a switched pass option too. 

7:25PM

26 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

MOROCCO HAVE A ONE V ONE! DE GEA SAVES!

This game is mental! It's a quick throw-in and the centre-backs have been hopelessly exposed by Boutaib, who is through on goal. He's quick, away from the defence but his final touch is too far ahead of him and De Gea has the chance to close it down and block.

Morocco are right at it here!

7:24PM

24 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

Credit: AP

Isco takes a corner and swings it deep into the box. Pique finds space and meets the cross... but his header is easily saved by the goalkeeper. 

Spain have a big chance to score here! It's four players running at the Morocco back line but Iniesta's shot is blocked and Costa loses it! 

7:22PM

22 mins - Spain 1 Morocco 1

That's a yellow card for Ahmadi for fouling Busquets with a tackle from behind. He'll miss the next World Cup ga... oh. 

And now Isco has been fouled by Amrabat. Spain take the free-kick short and start their passing play again.

7:19PM

GOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLL!

ISCO SCORES FOR SPAIN!

 

What a start! This is a beautiful move by Spain too! Isco plays a one-two, Iniesta takes it on, sprints past one defender and then flicks the pass into the box for Isco. He takes one touch and batters the finish high into the net!

7:19PM

19 mins - Spain 0 Morocco 1

Iniesta tries to make amends for his earlier error but hits an awful shot from 20 yards harmlessly wide and high.

 Spain have woken up. There's zip to the passing and they're running aggressively into 50/50s. And all of a sudden they're in!

7:17PM

17 mins - Spain 0 Morocco 1

Is it harsh to suggest De Gea should have done better there? If he was in a Man Utd shirt I'd expect him to save that every single time but there's this unquantifiable vulnerability to him at international level. 

Morocco are just waiting to counter-attack over and again and Spain aren't enjoying themselves. They're full of confidence.

7:14PM

GOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLL!

MOROCCO TAKE THE LEAD!

Wow! That came out of nothing. It's a horrible error by Iniesta and Ramos at the halfway line and Boutaib has the entire half to run into! He sprints towards the box and only has De Gea to beat and you just knew he wasn't going to miss! The ball goes beneath De Gea's outstretched leg and Morocco go one up!

7:14PM

14 mins - Spain 0 Morocco 0

At first look that seems like a decent bit of defending by Hakimi but when you think about it, what he's done there is block the ball with his back and then deliberately batter into Silva to send him flying inside the box. It will never be penalty... but isn't it a foul?

There is so much movement in the Spain midfield. Isco and Iniesta jave dropped back but THERE'S A MISTAKE! MOROCCO ARE AWAY!

7:12PM

12 mins - Spain 0 Morocco 0

Great run from Costa off the ball! He moves into space on the right channel and the ball is played there. Costa turns,m passes back and Silva breaks into the area. He's behind the last man, wide of the goal but nobody is in the area to take advantage of his cross. Warning signs that Spain are getting into this game.

7:09PM

10 mins - Spain 0 Morocco 0

pique tcakle

Now. The thing here is that Pique has gone in way too aggressively here, it's off the ground, two-footed and could cause serious injury. But he gets the ball and doesn't really touch the striker at all... but he goes flying (of course) and makes out that he's hurt. He's not, and Pique has gotten away with it.

This game is fiery.

7:08PM

8 mins - Spain 0 Morocco 0

It's all kicking off here! Amrabat is fired up and has had a little battle with Ramos after a collision from a 50/50. The two square up to each other... the fireworks are lit! The referee calms things down. For now.

And now Pique has gone in mega hard on Boutaib! Morocco are going nuts.

7:06PM

6 mins - Spain 0 Morocco 0

Corner to Spain. David Silva will take this and the referee is already telling off defenders for holding Spanish players in the box. 

The corner is headed away and Busquets wins the ball with a tackle from behind, which the referee doesn't like.

7:04PM

4 mins - Spain 0 Morocco 0

Spain move up the pitch and Costa wins a free-kick from his evil alter ego, Da Costa. Spain pass around the opposition half, Carvajal gets forward but loses control and Morocco move it around... but there's a mistake! 

Isco overlaps... but his outside of the boot cross is too close to the goalkeeper.

7:02PM

2 mins - Spain 0 Morocco 0

Morocco have instantly gone into defensive mode and look like they're going to sit deep for most of this one.

Morocco get the first bit of attacking done though and a cross from the left by Hakimi - who is a left-back wearing number two (disgraceful) - goes behind for a goal kick.

7:00PM

KICK OFF

BBC 4 works! We're in luck. But does that mean goals? We're about to find out! Spain get the game started.

6:57PM

Really hope this works

 

6:56PM

National anthems

When really, what they should play, is this:

 

6:48PM

Diego Costa chasing the Golden Boot

Race for the Golden Boot

A hat-trick tonight would put him top of the scorers list. We might be getting ahead of ourselves a little here - Morocco are a decent team and are capable of an upset tonight.

6:29PM

The BBC is lovely

 

6:20PM

A nice wee stat

 

6:17PM

Where is the game?

World Cup 2018 stadium: Kaliningrad Stadium

 

6:10PM

Spain need one point to progress

But with Portugal likely to get a victory over Iran, there's just no way they'll settle for a point. The interesting thing about this game will be how Morocco deal with it - do they suddenly turn on the magic now there's no pressure? Or will they have a lack of real motivation and fall victim to Spain's sharp passing?

6:02PM

But who will win?

 

5:57PM

Total Football podcast

While you're getting all revved up for this game, why not give our podcast a listen? Jamie Carragher is on it. 

5:53PM

Starting lineups

Spain

De Gea; Carvajal, Pique, Ramos, Alba; Busquets, Thiago, Iniesta; Silva, Isco, Costa

Morocco

El Kajoui; Hakimi, Da Costa, Saidd, Ziyach, El Ahmadi, Belhanda, Boutaib, Boussouga, Amrabat, Dirar

5:49PM

How will Spain play?

I can tell you, through the medium of VIDEO!

 

5:30PM

Good evening!

Welcome to our liveblog for Spain's final group game. Tonight they're going to try and put as many goals as possible past Morocco in the hope that goal difference will give them a better/easier opponent in the knock-out rounds of the World Cup, even if Fernando Hierro has been keen to stress that mathematically they still aren't through yet.

The brand new Spain manager has also pointed out that his side have a certain way of playing, and won't adjust for their opponents:

"If we had to change for muscle, we're something else, more than muscle. Honestly, we have our own way of playing, our own physique and muscle isn't going to work for us.

"We are a team. We like to attack and defend together and this is to stop our rivals from making transitions and stop them creating chances against us. For this reason we know we need to think about what we believe in and not about what the opposition coach is planning to do.

"Isco always brings quality, effort, one-on-ones, is combative and gets in between the lines. It's difficult for him to maintain a fixed position and he's performing very well, just like his teammates. He's performed at this elite level for a while now and we know what he can bring to the team." 

Spain World Cup tactics article

 Morocco are definitely out of the World Cup and may well opt to field some of the players who haven't yet made an appearance. They may also go with their strongest XI to avoid being given a hiding but it is expected that Spain should win this meeting comfortably, with the only question being how many goals will separate the two teams at the final whistle.

Team news should be with us very soon, at which point we can work out how both sides plan to approach the match and what is likely to happen during it! Stay with us for live analysis and updates throughout.