A dramatic late goal from Iago Aspas produced an extraordinary climax to Group B, with Spain snatching first place following a 2-2 draw with Morocco, as Portugal conceded at the death in their own parallel clash against Iran.
Spain appeared destined for a knockout game against Group A winners Uruguay, after a performance in which both their defense and attackers did not replicate the brilliance of their midfield, led by the retiring Andres Iniesta, and were made to pay when Moroccan substitute Youssef En-Nesyri drilled a header into the top corner 10 minutes from the end.
But Aspas, another substitute, flicked a clever finish into the goal during injury time, which was put on the scoreboard only following a VAR review. The effort positioned Spain ahead of fellow Iberians on goals scored, and means the Furia Roja will play against hosts Russia in Moscow on Sunday, while Portugal travel down to Sochi to play Uruguay the day before.
Morocco, who played well in their first two games, but only managed to get on the scoresheet once their fate was sealed. The North African side leaves Russia with their heads held high, and a distinct feeling of what might have been.
The Mediterranean rivals made their intentions clear from the start: a series of niggles and rough tackles resulted in four Morocco yellow cards in the first half, though the sides settled as the game went on.
Following an exchange of back passes that lulled Spain’s own players into torpitude, a terrible mix-up between Iniesta and Sergio Ramos set Khalid Boutaib racing free from the half-way line. The striker stared down David de Gea, then launched the ball confidently between the keeper’s legs.
Spain struck back almost immediately, with Iniesta slicing through Morocco’s penalty box, and launching a low cross to Isco, who swept the assist into the roof of the net.
Despite pretty patterns in midfield, Spain were not able to assert control, with Boutaib enjoying another one-to-one chance, stopped by De Gea this time. Gerard Pique, who endured a lackadaisical game alongside his center back partner Ramos, was granted a reprieve from the referee for a studs-up, two-footed tackle that could have been a red card in a different game.
Unshackled Morocco came out to play in the second half, as Nordin Amrabat smashed a 30-yard effort into the very top corner of the goal, only for the ball to bounce back out, all before De Gea had a chance to react.
With Spain pressing harder and harder as the clock ran down, it was the red-shirted North Africans who scored, as En-Nesyri outjumped Ramos, to plant the ball in the back of the net.
Spain were two goals away from the result they needed, but its late replacement coach Fernando Hierro, beset by consternation as he watched his team fiddle ineffectively and complacently for much of the game, enjoyed some beginner's luck.
Yet the lack of steel, concentration and consistency from a side containing so many winners from Real Madrid and Barcelona will remind Hierro of his own time as a stalwart of an elegant side that inevitably folded in unexpected ways as each World Cup progressed. The Furia Roja has historically enjoyed a perfect tournament record against Russia, but will have to be wary of another loose performance at the Luzhniki Stadium, and must scale a different level altogether if they want to repeat their World Cup triumph of 2010.