Spain managed to win its World Cup group like many expected, but it certainly didn't come easily.
Thanks to a late back-heel flick from Celta Vigo's Iago Aspas–which was only confirmed via VAR–Spain tied 2-2 with a valiant Morocco and topped Group B, securing a knockout encounter with Russia, the runner-up from Group A. The goal came simultaneously as Iran was pulling even with Portugal thanks to a VAR decision in that game, which knockout Portugal out of first and forced Cristiano Ronaldo & Co. into a matchup with Group A winner Uruguay.
It was a thrilling match in which Morocco, who had already been eliminated from the tournament, delivered a brave performance that made Fernando Hierro's side work hard for the point. Spain only finished top of the group due to scoring more goals in the group stage than Portugal.
A wonderful start to the match showed Morocco wasn't just there as a formality, as a well organized unit looked to capitalize whenever Spanish players had their back to the goal. But Spain's possession game was slowly picking up as the match developed.
The first attempt came in the third minute when Isco looked for Andres Iniesta inside the box but Mounir Mohamedi picked up the ball with ease. Spain kept pushing, however, and in the fifth minute it secured its first corner, but Morocco stood firm.
Tensions flared as Sofyan Amrabat and Sergio Ramos were already getting physical, and moments later things heated even more after a Gerard Pique wreckless foul caught Khalid Boutaib with two feet in the air. The Barcelona man was lucky not to receive a booking.
In the 13th minute, however, an amazing turn of events as Morocco capitalized on a mistake from Iniesta as his pass was not met by his teammate and Khalid Boutaib made the team pay.
Moments later, however, Iniesta redeemed himself with a great run on the left hand side and found Isco to slot it into the box. A perfect ball from the ex-Barcelona star. The game elevated in excitement minutes later as once again, Boutaib found himself open and one on one with David de Gea after a long throw, but the Man United stopper made a smart block to deny the striker.
After the goal, Spain took more control of the match as more instinctive passes created in the final third were causing a tremendous headache for its opponent. In the 36th minute, Hierro's squad had secured its fourth corner but the soild cross was not met properly by Sergio Busquets, and Morocco escaped once again.
Just before the half ended, the North African nation found itself in the final third and Hakim Ziyech took an optimistic shot that went high above De Gea's goal. Regardless, it was an encouraging sign that Morocco still had moments where it could threaten Spain as it remained 1-1 as the half coming to an end. Seconds before the whistle, Andres Iniesta made another mesmerizing run into the box, crossed the ball looking for his teammates, but noone was quick enough to pick up the assist.
By the time we ended the first half, Hierro was probably hoping it could have going as Spain was clearly on the front foot.
As the second half started, Spain looked to control from the start once again, but vulnerability against the counter was showing as Morocco's high line was frustrating the European side.
In the 54th minute, the press nearly paid off as an intended cross nearly found itself at the back of De Gea's goal, but the ball ended up hitting the elbow of the post and crossbar and Morocco missed a huge opportunity while Spain exhaled. In the 58th minute, Spain was awarded a free kick thanks to an elbow on Andres Iniesta. Isco's cross, however, was easily cleared. The offensive firepower kept coming as Isco's header was clearly aiming towards goal but a fantastic clearance kept it 1-1.
With twenty minutes left, Spain had completely dominated the possession, but Morocco was fighting with tremendous effort to keep its opponent at bay. Herve Renard's side amazingly took the lead when Youssef En Nesyri's powerful header from a corner grabbed the lead in the 81st minute.
Spain thought it had scored in the 90th minute when Iago Aspas flicked it in thanks to a cross from the right hand side, but the referee initially called it offside.
VAR entered the frame to fully conclude the decision and just like that, Spain made it 2-2 as it was clear that the Celta Vigo striker was onside. In the end, Spain salvaged a point against a Moroccan squad that worked tremendously hard throughout the encounter.
For Group B's other match, check out our recap from Iran vs. Portugal here.
Here were the lineups for both teams:
Here are the rosters for both sides:
Goalkeepers: David De Gea (Manchester United), Pepe Reina (Napoli), Kepa Arrizabalaga (Athletic Bilbao)
Defenders: Jordi Alba (Barcelona), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea), Nacho Monreal (Arsenal), Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid), Nacho Fernandez (Real Madrid), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Alvaro Odriozola (Real Sociedad)
Midfielders: Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich), Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), Koke (Atletico Madrid), Saul Niguez (Atletico Madrid), Marco Asensio (Real Madrid), David Silva (Manchester City), Lucas Vazquez (Real Madrid), Isco (Real Madrid)
Forwards: Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo), Rodrigo (Valencia), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid)
Manager: Fernando Hierro
Goalkeepers: Mounir Mohamedi (Numancia), Yassine Bounou (Girona), Ahmad Reda Tagnaouti (Ittihad Tanger)
Defenders: Mehdi Benatia (Juventus), Romain Saiss (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Manuel Da Costa (Basaksehir), Nabil Dirar (Fenerbahce), Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid), Hamza Mendyl (Lille)
Midfielders: Mbark Boussoufa (Al Jazira), Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord), Youssef Ait Bennasser (Caen), Sofyan Amrabat (Feyenoord), Younes Belhanda (Galatasaray), Faycal Fajr (Getafe), Amine Harit (Schalke)
Forwards: Khalid Boutaib (Malatyaspor), Aziz Bouhaddouz (St. Pauli), Ayoub El Kaabi (Renaissance Berkane), Nordin Amrabat (Leganes), Mehdi Carcela (Standard Liege), Hakim Ziyech (Ajax), Youssef En Nesyri (Malaga)
Manager: Herve Renard