Spain beat Iran 1-0 at the 2018 FIFA World Cup on Wednesday to draw level with Portugal at the top of Group B and set the stage for a climactic final day in one of the tournament's must-watch pools.
Iran did their utmost to frustrate the 2010 world champions in a clash of styles, but Diego Costa eventually opened the scoring with a scrappy 54th-minute winner that ended up the evening's only goal.
Group B rivals Portugal got their first win of the tournament earlier on Wednesday and moved into first place after a sole Cristiano Ronaldo goal led them to a 1-0 victory against Morocco.
Marco Asensio's Omission Tactical Error Hierro Must Learn From
Few might have thought Iran might look capable of bringing Spain to their knees despite having less than a quarter of possession, per WhoScored.com, but Fernando Hierro was handed a tactical minefield in his second game in charge.
Lucas Vazquez was the surprise name in Hierro's XI, one of two changes on the night, the other being Dani Carvajal at full-back to form a new-look right side.
Perhaps it was an underestimation of Iran or an oversight on his part, but Hierro could have spotted sooner that Asensio's direct approach would have been of more benefit than Vazquez's driving to the line out wider.
Bleacher Report's Matt Jones was more straightforward in his analysis, with Vazquez preferred by manager Hierro to a certain Real Madrid team-mate:
Costa has provided La Furia Roja with a classy-but-limited striker presence up front, and writer Andrew Gaffney highlighted how his presence alone up front wasn't what they needed in a packed enemy box:
Indeed, despite having the worse season in Madrid this past term, Asensio looked to be what was needed more so on the night, a more direct runner of the ball with a better eye for goal. That being said, Spain were rightly judged to have too much of a defensive focus given the opposition.
While Iran might have courted some praise for their stifling tactics in the first half, this was more a test of Hierro's tactical nous considering the 3-3 draw with Portugal was something of a wild anomaly.
Powering away at the front door eventually worked out for the same Spain XI that started the match, not long after half-time, although Spanish reporter Andy West called for more action from the coach:
However, Reading midfielder David Meyler expects better in the next phase of the tournament—assuming they make it there:
In the two years since bursting onto Real's first-team scene, Asensio has already shone in international colours, but he's been limited to cameo displays thus far, and the team was crying out for his talents against Iran.
Hierro boasts one of the best squads in the world and shouldn't feel aghast to weaving players in and out of his lineup. Consistency is all well and good, but sometimes confusing the opposition is a worthy tactic in itself.
Iran Performance Proof the Best Defence Is No Offence
While one can't envision a team with little more than one-fifth of possession dazzling, Carlos Queiroz's side still managed to make defence seem like an attraction of its own worth attending on Wednesday.
Admittedly, it's the kind of football that's almost certain not to win a team the World Cup, but Iran drew their admirers for taking it to one of the best teams on the planet and only yielding once the full-time whistle blew:
Oftentimes one would see all 10 of Iran's outfielders in their own half, as even striker Sardar Azmoun frequently got back to harry Spain centre-backs Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique.
But this was nonstop for 90 minutes and a credit to Queiroz's conditioning of his stars if nothing else. Theirs was the kind of underdog bandwagon it became hard not to jump on, as was the case with writer Alex Chaffer:
Saeid Ezatolahi thought he was his nation's hero when he put the ball in the back of the net not long after Costa's breakthrough, only for the video assistant referee to pull it back for offside. But it was the near-instant reply that was admirable, considering they had barely showed intent to enter Spain's half prior to that.
Then there was the heart-in-mouth moment when Pique and other Spaniards descended on the Iranian line, hacking to get the ball over the mark, only for the Asian minnows to successfully keep the deficit to one goal, per Football Daily:
Football doesn't always have to be played in the same, often talked-about methods to be enjoyed, and Iran are hardly likely to advance from a World Cup group containing Spain and Portugal by playing expansive football.
Iran know their limitations, and while it worked against Morocco, it wasn't far from pulling off a result against one of the best outfits in the world.
Isco Boosts His Claim as Iniesta's Heir Apparent
Many football fans will recognise this as Andres Iniesta's last World Cup, and Wednesday's win was a painful reminder of that as, amid the awkwardness Iran gave them, he still looked like one of Spain's better players.
So it was fortunate that Isco offered another light and looked positive himself, with Match of the Day illustrating how influential a figure he was after the first 45 minutes:
The Real Madrid star has taken to operating in a wide-left role for Spain, which was not too unlike the wider roles Iniesta has often taken up from time to time at Barcelona.
But whether it's in that wide channel or a more central role—where he's also dazzled when afforded the chance—Isco looks a class act in Spain colours. Writer Michael Cox agreed:
So likeable is the former Malaga playmaker that he even took the time out of his performance to win over fans with his humanitarianism, something Iniesta himself might do, per Eurosport UK:
There's many a Barca supporter out there who'd likely take Isco as an Iniesta replacement were it not for the two teams' historic, tetchy rivalry, with the 34-year-old set to leave the Camp Nou for Japan this summer.
At least Spain's national team is a common ground for the two, and when Iniesta eventually departs, there seems a good chance Isco will be given more opportunity to groove into that central hub more naturally.
Spain will end their Group B campaign against eliminated Morocco on Monday, while Iran face Portugal, where only a win would be enough to secure them a place in the round of 16.
This article will be updated to provide more information on this story as it becomes available.
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