The last time I was in Tehran there were some taxi-bus vehicles that were called ‘Ayans’, if I recall correctly. That’s what Iran parked on Wednesday night. They parked the Ayans, with so little shame that not even a forward was left up front. Eleven behind the ball, and to think that when Carlos Queiroz, the coach with the looks of a long-faded porn star was signed for Real Madrid, he was considered to be one of the children of the new coaching dawn. Bring on the night. Vicente del Bosque made way for him, because poor old Vicente, good coach though he was, could never have been a porn star, except in some parallel universe.
I’m not sure whether teams should be punished for this sort of tactical approach, although the least you can say of Iran is that they were good at it. They defend well, as their record suggests, but when they were finally obliged to come out of their nuclear bunkers they also showed that they could actually play. Their number 11, Vahid Amiri, was excellent all night, and can leave with Pique´s scalp, having nutmegged the centurion (the non-patriot’s 100th game for Spain) with aplomb and set up a chance late on for Iran, which wasn’t taken.
Justice was therefore done, courtesy of Diego Costa’s knee, and with their final game to be played against Morocco, now pointless and bottom of the group, one suspects that Spain will be in the next round. Until Costa’s goal, however, it was looking a bit desperate, as this type of game often is. At half-time you were almost tempted to think that the best tactic would be to just give Iran the ball and ask them to play a bit, just to open up some spaces on the counter. In the first half, Iran’s wide midfielders doubled as full-backs, wisely closing down the spaces which Alba and Vazquez were looking to exploit. Alba broke free a couple of times, but Lucas Vazquez was disappointing. Dani Carvajal, returning to the side after injury, played as an attacking midfielder, pushing inside so as to create space for Vazquez, but Iran were too smart.
The result was that Spain had too many players in the Iranian half, ironically closing down their own space. By spreading the lines more thinly and vertically in the second half (Busquets and Pique stayed further back), Spain moved the ball more quickly and found space where they had previously been occupying it themselves. It seems weird, but that was the key to opening up Iran, and it led to the goal – Iniesta finding space between the lines and passing a ball forward for Costa to lumber at and score, after a deflection from his knobbly knee. Costa played well, in a Costa-sort-of-way, but Hierro should have brought Aspas on earlier, and not Rodrigo. Aspas has a knack of opening up hermetic defences with his jelly-like wobbling runs, and can open the Sesame where others struggle. But anyway, Spain won and will probably progress, although Morocco are not as bad as their zero points suggest.
There was some comedy at the end, with Mohammadi’s botched attempt at a throw-in somersault ending with him looking spatially confused, as if he’d just fallen out of a tree. Iran are surely a better side than Queiroz’s appalling tactics suggested, and can still progress. Portugal seem blessed of late, but the moment Ronaldo is annulled (and Iran’s centre-backs are tough and disciplined), they may struggle. Iran are dangerous on the counter, should they decide to actually play with a forward or two, and could beat Portugal.
Is there anything else to take from this game, apart from the fact that its predictable difficulty will probably do Spain more good than harm? Well, Diego Costa was given MOTM by the game’s official observers, but that simply demonstrates their imbecility. Busquets was Spain’s best player, and Haji Safi performed heroics at the back for Iran. Busquets was actually looking a bit wobbly in the build-up to the tournament, as if his powers were finally on the wane, but this was majestic stuff – snuffing out everything before it became a fire hazard, switching direction effortlessly with the ball and playing the right pass, always at the right pace and at the appropriate time. As Toshack once said of Valery Karpin, ‘He knows when to pass it, but he also knows when not to pass it. The first idea’s easy, but you can’t teach the second.’
Wise words, and as good as Koke is, he doesn’t quite have that judgement under his belt as yet. Iniesta does, of course, but he looked a bit ponderous at times, and seemed less effective than usual, despite the assist. Maybe in the final group game, he should take a rest and let Saúl have a run in the paddock, or put Asensio on from the start. Isco was wonderful again, but he sometimes took a touch too many and often ran into the wall of red.
Piqué was pretty decent too. One hundred caps for Spain, and there are still those who give him the bird, although thankfully not in Russia so far. Patriot games? Perhaps. But he’s always seemed genuinely committed to the cause, and although he can be a bit of a prick at times, at others he’s quite an interesting and reflective chap. The Spanish press preferred to play down his century on Wednesday, as if they couldn’t quite bring themselves to analyse its apparent contradictions, preferring simplistic criticism (absent today) or the luxury of no comment. Anyway, it looks like he’ll get a few more games in, because Spain have managed to extract themselves from a sticky-looking situation. Two games, four points, and no easy ride yet. They’re warming up nicely, with no apparent sign of any Lopetegui fall-out. Hierro’s rigging the mainsail quietly but efficiently. Sail on chaps.