The VAR giveth and the VAR taketh away.
The newly introduced replay system correctly confirmed a chalked off goal by Iran that would have tied the match in the second half, leaving Diego Costa’s goal in the 54th minute the difference-maker in Spain’s 1-0 victory over a stubborn Team Melli on Wednesday in Group B play in Kazan.
The defining moment came in the 62nd minute, when it appeared Saeid Ezatolhi scored from six yards on a free kick swung in from the right. The far linesman raised his flag indicsting Ezatolhi was offsides, and referee Andres Cunha never signaled for a goal before consulting with VAR. After a review of less than a minute, Cunha confirmed there was no goal, much to the disappointment of Iran.
Costa’s goal came after Spain struggled to break down a resolute Team Melli defense that ceded possession and often had all 10 men behind the ball. Andres Iniesta started the play 30 yards from goal after a pass from David Silva and slid a pass to Costa on the left. The striker spun to his outside with the ball, and after Ramin Rezaeian put a touch on the ball, it ricocheted off Costa’s right shin and rolled inside the left post.
The victory gave Spain four points, putting them level with Portugal atop Group B as Fernando Hierro claimed his first win after replacing the fired Julen Lopetegui two days before the start of the World Cup. The teams opened play with a 3-3 draw, and Portugal also posted a 1-0 victory over Morocco earlier Wednesday. Iran slipped to third place, but Team Melli can still advance to the round of 16 with a victory over Cristiano Ronaldo and the Navigators on Monday in Saransk.
Spain faces a Morocco side with nothing but pride to play for Monday in Kaliningrad knowing a draw will see it through to the knockout round.
While La Roja passed the ball around trying to push and pull Iran’s banks of four and sometimes five, Team Melli occasionally found space on the counter. They earned the first corner of the match and also showed an intent to score if the opportunity presented itself as Karim Ansarifard went over the crossbar from 20 yards just before the quarter-hour.
Spain’s first legitimate scoring chance came in the 25th minute when Silva left fly with a free kick from 25 yards that took a slight deflection, but not far enough from keeper Ali Beiranvand who caught comfortably. Silva had another chance four minutes later when a corner pinged around the penalty area, but he hooked a shot over the bar from 10 yards in a crowd of Iranian defenders.
Costa lived up to his pantomime villain status with a slight clip of Beiranvand’s foot late in the first half, felling the Melli keeper. Acuna, who kept a tight rein on the proceedings throughout, quickly brought order to the match after a word with the Atletico Madrid striker.
La Roja came out the brighter side in the second half, with Sergio Busquets testing Beiranvand from 20 yards with a right-footed shot. The Iran keeper dove too hard to his left, but got his right hand on the shot and then slapped it away while falling before Lucas Vazquez could get a boot to it.
Iran then fashioned its first real scoring chance of the contest in the 52nd minute when Ansarifard lashed a 15-yard shot that fizzed just wide of the left post and rippled the side netting. Costa’s goal, his third of the World Cup, sprung Team Melli into further urgency, with Mehdi Taremi going wide of the left post with a header on the hour.
After the disallowed goal, Spain nearly found a second in the 70th minute when Ramos had a shot from six yards blocked on the line after clever interplay from Isco and Silva. In the ensuing scramble, Rezaeian did well to put his body in front of the ball before Beiranvand could get a glove on it to end the sequence.
Iran, though, sensing it could advance on the counter, nearly struck again in the 75th minute when a cross from the left by Milad Mohammadi narrowly eluded a sliding Taremi.
Seven minutes later, Team Melli’s best chance for an equalizer went begging as Taremi’s bullet header from six yards went over the bar after Vahid Amiri electrified the crowd by nutmegging Gerard Pique on the left prior to sending in his cross.
Spain keeper David De Gea, who was not credited with a save in getting his clean sheet to atone for his howler aginst Portugal that resulted in Ronaldo’s second goal, punched one last cross from the penalty area in stoppage time to preserve La Roja’s three points.