Iago Aspas’ goal in the first minute of second-half stoppage time put Spain atop Group B as it scraped out a 2-2 draw against a dogged Morocco side Monday in Kaliningrad.
The equalizing goal came off a quickly played short corner on the right played to Dani Carvajal. He was unhurried and whipped in a curling cross that Aspas flicked with his right leg behind his standing foot and past Morocco goalkeeper El Kajoui.
The linesman originally ruled the play offsides, but referee Ravshan Irmatov consulted VAR, which determined Morocco defender Mbark Boussoufa had played Aspas onside, and the goal was allowed to stand.
Spain finished level atop the group with Portugal on five points, but the 2010 World Cup champion took honors on the strength of goals scored with six, one better than its Iberian rival which played Iran to a 1-1 draw in the other Group B contest. The reward for La Roja is a date with Group A runner-up and host Russia in the round of 16 on Sunday in Moscow.
Isco scored the other goal for Spain, which extended its unbeaten streak to 23 matches (15-8-0) but also looked out of step defensively in the moments Morocco pressed high and forced the tempo on the counter.
The Atlas Lions claimed only one point in their three matches, which in some ways was an injustice given how brightly they played throughout their time in Russia. They were done in by an own goal at the death against Iran in the opener and carried much of the play in their loss to Portugal before refusing to back down against one of Europe’s powers.
Khalid Boutaib and Youseff En-Nesyri scored on either side of halftime for Morocco, which dropped captain Mehdi Benatia before the match reportedly for publicly criticizing assistant Mustapha Hadji after the team’s 1-0 loss to Portugal.
The Atlas Lions racked up six yellow cards in a match that grew testy quickly in the eighth minute when Gerard Pique escaped without a card following a clumsy two-footed, studs-up challenge on Boutaib.
Boutaib, though, would get a measure of revenge in the 14th minute when he pounced on a sloppy back pass by Andres Iniesta, racing between him and Sergio Ramos and tearing off through Spain’s final third. David De Gea came out, but Boutain waited him out and slotted the ball through the Manchester United keeper’s legs to give Morocco an early lead.
It was Morocco’s first World Cup goal since Abdeljalil Hadda completed a 3-0 victory over Scotland in the final group match in 1998.
Spain needed just five minutes to equalize as Iniesta atoned for his gaffe with some brilliant playmaking. He played a 1-2 with Diego Costa, passing the ball to the striker at the top of the penalty area before getting the return pass in the left channel and touching it around a defender. Iniesta then laid the ball off to Isco at the top of the six-yard box, and the Celta Vigo forward roofed it for his sixth international goal.
Boutain nearly grabbed a second in similar fashion to his first as he latched onto a throw-in behind Ramos and Pique. De Gea, though, was able to get down and stop this one from close range, marking his first save in 205 minutes of play at this World Cup.
In an 11-minute span, Karim El-Ahmadi, Noureddine Amrabat, Manuel De Costa and Boussoufa will all booked by Irmatov, with Da Costa’s challenge on Isco particularly poor as he, Iniesta and Jordi Alba were giving Morocco fits on the left.
Iniesta nearly set up a second goal as he raced in from the left, but his cross wasn’t met flush enough by Costa, who could not steer it on frame in first-half stoppage time.
Pique again walked a fine line after the restart and should have been called for handball in the 48th minute, but again escaped any discipline. De Gea was called into action to punch out a cross Boussoufa nearly caught on the volley.
Amrabat came agonizingly close to putting Morocco ahead in the 55th minute when his slicing sublime strike thumped the crossbar as De Gea could only watch and hope. Seven minutes later, it was La Roja nearly grabbing the lead as Romain Saiss cleared a goal-bound header by Isco from danger, and Pique narrowly missed on a header on the enusing corner.
As Portugal continued to lead Iran 1-0 in the other contest, Spain’s chances to win the group took a significant hit in the 81st minute when En-Nesyri met Amrabat’s corner with an absolutely majestic header into the upper right corner to restore Morocco’s lead.
Shortly after Aspas pulled Spain level, Iran did likewise against Portugal which allowed La Roja to top the group.