Morocco woe as Aspas and VAR see sloppy Spain through at the top
Spain 2 Morocco 2
The table says that Spain topped Group B but they did so as if in a trance, as if they had still not recovered from the departure of their manager Julen Lopetegui days before they began the tournament.
The combination of two penalties, one scored, one missed, 1,200 miles away in Saransk, and Iago Aspas' goal, first disallowed and then awarded by VAR, meant Spain will play Russia in Moscow. The hosts, in their own capital, are entitled to fancy their chances.
When Youssef En Nesyri climbed above Sergio Ramos to thunder home Faycal Fajr's corner, it appeared the least Morocco deserved. Then, in stoppage time, Aspas headed home. Ravshan Irmatov ruled it offside, VAR showed the Celta Vigo forward was marginally onside.
"There was a lot of uncertainty, we didn't know we had finished top until some team mates told me," Aspas said. "The important thing is that we are through and finished top of the group."
The Moroccan bench and players exploded with frustration on the VAR decision. During the narrow 1-0 defeat to Portugal, the technology had not been employed to show Pepe handling in the area. Now, it had denied them an epic victory. Had VAR been used to dissect Gerard Pique's studs-up challenge on Khalid Boutaib, it might have led to Spain spending most of the evening with 10 men.
They were desperately unfortunate not have scored more. Midway through the first half Noureddine Amrabat took aim and crashed his shot against David De Gea's crossbar that shook long after impact.
Defensively, Spain appeared fragile and, in attack, only Andres Iniesta and Isco made an impact. Isco might have had a second had Ghanem Saiss not flicked his header wide as the game revved up for its climax.
Morocco manager Hervé Renard began by dropping his captain Mehdi Benatia, possibly because he had made some critical comments about Mustapha Hadji, Renard's assistant, after the defeat by Portugal that had knocked them out.
Within 14 minutes they had scored their first goal of the World Cup and the nerves would begin to dance in Fernando Hierro's mind.
More Moroccan supporters than Spanish had made the journey to Russia's Baltic enclave, swept by rain and wind, and when the electronic scoreboard demonstrated how VAR worked, they jeered.
The game was less than a quarter of an hour old when they began celebrating wildly. Ramos and Iniesta hesitated, neither properly controlled the ball and Boutaib was clear on goal, driving forward with long, graceful strides.
Had this been a regulation game at Old Trafford, you would have backed De Gea but the De Gea who plays for Spain is not the same man who has been repeatedly voted Manchester United's player of the season.
Boutaib, who like the majority of this Moroccan side was not born in the country he represents, calmly slid the ball between the goalkeeper's legs.
Later in the first half, Boutaib was once more one-on-one with De Gea and once more Spain appeared impossibly dozy as Boutaib ran on to a throw in. This time he delayed his shot slightly too long, De Gea saved and Spain escaped.
In between, they had equalised. There has been an awful lot written about how this will be Lionel Messi's last World Cup but it will be Iniesta's too. The way he slalomed past Manuel Da Costa and flicked the ball back into Isco's path showed precisely what will be gone when he takes his leave. (© Independent News Service, London)