Though Iran surprisingly finds itself atop Group B after the first set of matches, it will have to do much, much more to pull off the biggest upset in its World Cup history Tuesday when they face Spain in Kazan.
Team Melli recorded just their second World Cup win in club history Friday when they defeated Morocco 1-0 on an own goal by Atlas Lions forward Aziz Bouhaddouz in the 95th minute. The other victory came in 1998 against the United States and ended a seven-match winless streak while improving to 2-3-8 all-time in football’s biggest tournament.
While the victory over the African side was a surprise, taking down the 2010 champion would be David vs Goliath-like considering the victory would all but assure Iran of reaching the round of 16 for the first time in its history.
Spain has had time to gain its bearings after a whirlwind week that started with the firing of manager Julen Lopetegui two days before its opening match ended with a pulsating 3-3 draw against Iberian rival Portugal on Friday that is being hailed as one of the best group matches in World Cup history.
Diego Costa had a brace on either side of halftime to twice erase one-goal deficits, and Nacho gave La Roja the lead with one of the best goals of the World Cup thus far, a sublime fizzing right-footed volley from 25 yards that banged home off the left post. But Spain could not see the victory through as Cristiano Ronaldo capped a memorable virtuoso performance of his own with a well-placed free kick around a four-man wall and into the upper right corner of the net in the 88th minute.
Despite being held to one point, Fernando Hierro’s team is still in good shape to progress to the knockout round to atone for the disappointing group stage flameout in Brazil four years ago as defending champion.
LAST TIME OUT
What the own goal that lifted Iran to victory hid was that Carlos Queiroz’s team did not even attempt a shot in the final 45 minutes, relying on a cross by Ehsan Haji Safi that Bouhaddouz converted into his own net with a bullet header.
While Team Melli keeper Ali Berinvand only needed to make two saves for his clean sheet, one of those came at full stretch in the 79th minute to stonewall Hakim Ziyach’s slicing 20-yard volley that seemed destined for the lower left corner.
For Spain, a fluid offense that scored in a variety of ways; a long ball forward to Costa as a target forward, a set piece on a free kick and a world-class volley also hid individual defensive breakdowns that led to each of Ronaldo’s goals.
The first came when Nacho fouled his Real Madrid teammate after a stepover in the penalty area and the last came after Gerard Pique fouled Ronaldo in a dangerous area where he could convert a free kick. The outrage over De Gea’s gaffe in between prompted Hierro to issue a public vote of confidence for his starting keeper.
“Goalkeeper is a special position, with a special psychology,” Hierro said at his press conference Tuesday, well aware of the position’s demands as a former standout defender for Spain. “We have no doubts. Honestly. He doesn’t doubt himself either.”
After using a 4-2-3-1 set-up versus Morocco, Queiroz will likely keep nine players behind the ball and use two banks of four with Omid Ebrahimi in between to try and disrupt Iniesta. One area of concern is the three yellow cards Team Melli accrued in the win, all coming to his midfielders. Given how Spain will likely have the ball in the center of the pitch for most of this contest, discipline will be a stress point.
Spain will again trot out a 4-3-3 formation. Hierro likely will not make any changes, but if there is one player who is vulnerable to being left out of his starting XI, it would be Koke, with Thiago the most likely replacement to help Busquets clean things up and recycle possession.
Queiroz made two like-for-like substitutions in introducing midfielder Mehdi Taremi in the 68th minute and forward Saman Ghoddos in the 85th. In between, he brought on a fifth defender in Majid Hosseini on 81 minutes to help keep order after Berinvand’s point-saving save.
Hierro’s first two switches, bringing in Thiago for Andres Iniesta and Iago Asps for Costa were like-for-like swaps that made sense, especially Costa in the 77th minute given he had run himself into the ground. But with hindsight being 20/20, removing Iniesta robbed Spain of an avenue to see the game out with a potential insurance goal up 3-2. La Roja sat back and started giving Portugal more possession.
His final swap of Lucas Vazquez or David Silva two minutes before Ronaldo’s equalizer was designed to give more defensive shape to the midfield.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Iran – Ali Beiranvand (GK)
Team Melli’s two friendlies versus European sides in their World Cup run-up were against Turkey and Lithuania, and with all due respect to those teams, neither could replicate the kind of offensive attack Berinvand will face in this match. The key will be marshaling his back line without having it collapse upon him in the penalty area as Spain push and pull those two banks like taffy trying to find creases.
Spain – Andres Iniesta (MF)
While La Roja surprisingly had pockets of space when Portugal took the match to Spain on Friday, they will not get such a luxury against a well-drilled Iran side. That means it will be upon Iniesta to unlock those two banks of four in the midfield. It also means Spain will have to resist the urge to rely on passing the ball into the back of the net; having a target forward means Iniesta must spray the ball wide at times to let Silva and Isco use their pace to give Costa a chance to diagonally run to areas to meet crosses.
Per Ladbrokes, Spain is a commanding 1-5 favorite while Iran checks in as an 18-1 underdog. An unlikely draw also provides a healthy 5-1 return. For first goal-scorers, Costa leads the line at 5-2 while Iago and Rodrigo are joint-second at 3-1. Even Sergio Ramos (11-1) is getting better odds to score the first goal of the match than Team Melli’s first option, which is Reza Ghoochannejhad at 14-1.
While Queiroz is one of the best minds in football and will undoubtedly come up with something that will frustrate Spain for a portion of this match, the key question is: For how long? How long can Iran hold out in its final third? How long can Iran go without the ball before launching it downfield as a release valve to Jahanbakhsh and Azmoun? How long can Team Melli chase and close down passing lanes? And how long will they last before Costa goads someone on the back line to lose their cool in a key moment?
After giving Morocco 64 percent possession, it would not be surprising to see Spain reach in excess of 70 percent. In terms of breaking down opponents, La Roja have been there and done that. There were stretches of spellbinding play versus Portugal, and there will be more in this match. The sooner it winds up resulting in a goal, the better.
Look for Spain to move back into one of the top two spots of Group B following a 3-0 victory.
Iran completes group play against Ronaldo and Portugal on Monday in Saransk, and Spain wraps up its three matches versus Morocco in Kaliningrad.