It’s a slightly strange scene on Monday in Group B, with permutations galore should unexpected things happen – and the most unexpected thing would be that Morocco, already homeward bound, defeated Spain by such a margin as to cause a draw in the other game between Portugal and Iran (a more likely result) to take the latter two through, sending Spain packing, along with their African neighbours. In the murky past, when Spain were considered a decent technical side limited by a lack of tactical discipline and/or big tournament mentality, this is the sort of game they might indeed have bottled, and although times have clearly changed, nobody in the Spanish press is taking Morocco lightly, a side without points but with plenty of kudos garnered from their first two games.
Fernando Hierro, growing discreetly into a job that could remain his if the campaign goes well, has insisted that no-one is thinking they’re through, in a game that has few historical precedents for Spain, oddly enough. The two sides have only met twice before in official competitions, once in 1961 in a qualifier for Chile – a game that incidentally saw Ferenc Puskas’ debut for Spain (they won 3-2 and qualified).
The other occasion was in the 2012 Olympics (0-0), actually played at Old Trafford – and that’s about it. This lack of previous seems to have slightly disconcerted the Spanish press, keen as they are to draw on the past to illuminate the present, in that vaguely superstitious framework that they like to build around these types of matches. The press has also learned its lesson from previous campaigns, and tends to err on the side of caution these days, so as not to invite in the ‘duendes’ of misfortune. The Spanish ‘duende’ is a kind of dodgy hobgoblin who harbours a particular dislike of hubris and over-confidence.
Besides, several Moroccans are known to La Liga, first and foremost the useful Nordin Amrabat who despite seeming to spend his life on loan (currently from Watford to Leganés) looked a fine player indeed when he was at Málaga. Full-back Achraf is of course at Real Madrid (although he’ll probably be loaned out next season if Odriozola moves south from Real Sociedad), Fajr is at Getafe and Youssef En Neysri at Málaga, although of course they’ve just gone down. The Barça forward Munir, who has been plying his trade (on loan) this season at Alavés, is a player who still might make an impact if he can finally shrug off the weight of expectation that was once thrust upon him, but his absence from the Moroccan side is due to a 13-minute appearance for Spain against Macedonia in 2014, courtesy of Vicente Del Bosque. Munir appealed to FIFA, but to no avail, and just like you will be watching the game from a sofa somewhere.
Ed Alvarez was last heard of having lunch on Sunday in deepest St Petersburg, and despite claiming to have gone to the opera in his latest Whatsapp could well be thumbing it over to Kaliningrad as I tap these keys. Hence the change in Liga Fever roles for this game, but anyway, it was my turn to write the pre-match piece anyway. And this game of thrones is a tricky one to predict. Morocco’s coach, Jaimie Lannister, was formerly a knight of the Kingsguard and a renowned kingslayer, and therefore cannot be seen to accept defeat stoically. He will continue to fight even when there is seemingly little point in the exercise, and will bestow the same spirit of resistance unto his players.
Hierro knows that Morocco might play footloose and fancy free, with nothing much to lose. At the very least, it’s unlikely that Spain will be obliged to face the bus-parking that Iran went in for, and will be relieved that the trauma of that particular game is over. Now it’s Portugal’s turn, but Spain will not want to be looking nervously at their own supporters’ reactions in the stands as the games progress simultaneously on Monday evening but rather get the job over and done with themselves.
As a rule, Spain are comfy enough with teams that play an open game against them, despite the wobbles that have been evident in the centre of their defence so far. Sometimes you get the distinct impression that Piqué and Ramos, excellent centurions though they both are, somehow snarl things up at the back, even when they have the excellent Busquets for protection. It’s as if Ramos prefers a pacier and more destructive Casemiro-like player in front of him, and that Piqué doesn’t quite hit it off with Carvajal in terms of positional agreement – but that’s a very critical look at a team that doesn’t lose an awful lot of games. Nevertheless, something’s not quite right, as was obvious against Portugal. Teams who are more inclined to attack Spain are aware of this, and although they run obvious risks, some will just decide to throw caution to the proverbials and see what happens. Morocco might well do this. It could be interesting.
The problem might reside with the fact that in a national side, the full-backs themselves (usually Carvajal and Alba) cannot always count on the same wide midfielders in front of them, and cannot be sure to what extent they will be covered, or that their runs will be efficiently protected. The relationship between the full-back and the wide midfielder is now one of the most crucial aspects of post-modern football. In a side like Spain, where the possession game dictates that this relationship must be intimate, changes to the side can disrupt this particular pattern and leave the side vulnerable to counter-attacks. Piqué and Ramos are great, but they’re no spring chickens. Varane’s speed often covers for Ramos at Real Madrid, but Piqué on the back foot is no laughing matter. You could argue that it might be interesting to hand Odriozola his World Cup debut against Morocco, and worry the Africans into defending against his whizzing runs up the right, as long as Koke (for example) is around to clean up on the same side. Iniesta looks as if he could do with a rest too, giving way perhaps to Asensio or Saúl. I’d like to see Aspas get some minutes too.
Looking on the positive side, if both Spain and Portugal win, the leader of the group will be decided by goals scored. At the moment they’re tied on four. Having watched Iran so far, you get the distinct impression that Spain are the more likely to score the most. Morocco have only conceded twice, but are yet to score. It’s certainly one of the more interesting groups now, with regard to the final games of this generally entertaining opening phase.