Spain: Fernando Hierro
Iran: Carlos Queiroz
Iran vs Spain
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 donâ€™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.
â€śWe have three more points,â€ť said the Spain coach, Fernando Hierro, sounding the most relieved man west of Vladivostock. â€śBut it was a very tough game, they are very strong physically.â€ť
His full back Carlos Cavarjal was less diplomatic: â€śThat was not football, that was a betrayal,â€ť the Barcelona man said of Iranâ€™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 Spainâ€™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's formidable defense
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. Busquetsâ€™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 Costaâ€™s knee beyond Beiranvandâ€™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 Spainâ€™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.
IRAN PERFORMANCE SPAIN ESP
30%****** BALL POSSESSION ***** 70%
69%***** PASS ACCURACY ********89%
219 PASSES 805
152 PASSES COMPLETED 718
106 km DISTANCE COVERED 105 km