World Cup Group B: Can Spain afford to treat Morocco like a walkover?
After late disappointment in their opening game, Spain just about managed to brush themselves down and beat Iran. Team Melli's bubble, which had swelled after victory in their opening game against Morocco, was cruelly burst.
That defeat for Morocco was followed by another against Cristiano Ronaldo, aka Portugal.
As a result, Morocco and Spain find themselves in very different situations ahead of their meeting in Kaliningrad today.
Spain are already through to the knockout stages. If they better Portugal’s result, they will top the group. Morocco are already eliminated. Playing for pride, they will be bidding for at least a draw not to leave Russia pointless.
Tonight’s final group game sees Spain and Morocco face-off in a game dripping with historic rivalry.
In Spain, the locals still take a dim view of Moroccans or ‘Moors’ as they are often disparagingly referred. Centuries after their country was invaded, it is. The Moroccans might still be smarting from the Spanish Inquisition's barbarity.
Perhaps because of these tensions, the national teams seldom face each other despite being so close geographically. From many coastal points in Andalusia, where the North African Army spilled onto the beaches in the 8th century, you can see Morocco.
The countries last met in a meaningful football encounter in 1961. They played twice in 11 days. Spain won both games. Apart from a Mediterranean Games third-place playoff two years later, which Spain also won, they haven’t met since.
FIFA Ranking: 10th
Spain’s 3-3 draw against 11-man Ronaldo, followed by their victory over Iran, taught us little we didn’t already know. We have come to associate La Roja with mesmerising passing football which appears to have been perfected in the cramped and narrow backstreets of Barcelona and Madrid.
Despite losing their coach days before their opening match, Spain were largely unaffected. They were unable to beat Portugal and only just had the better of Iran, but not from a lack of those guileful passing performances that football purists love.
Unfortunately, in their opening game, they came up against an inspired Ronaldo. His hat-trick against a tournament favourite has, in the eyes of many, given him the defining moment that pushes him clear of Messi in the race to be anointed greatest of all time. David De Gea’s slippery gloves didn’t help. The Manchester United keeper made an error so rare that it actually served to raise his stock.
Little was wrong with Spain’s opening performance, Diego Costa, who always looks like he could spontaneously combust at any moment, was inspired.
Iniesta could be rested to keep him fresh for the tournament's latter stages. Thiago might rate a start or Fernando Hierro could return Koke to the starting eleven.
Dani Carvajal should continue at right back, having not made any errors on the scale of Nacho's against Portugal.
Hierro goes into his third game as manager of the country he represented 89 times as a player with little pressure. Charged with holding the fort in a mess made by higher powers, he has the luxury of being blameless for any underperformance while standing front and centre to take credit for anything good that happens.
As a result of this free reign, he may be tempted to experiment in a meaningless game. Less-experienced players like Iago Aspas and Marco Asensio, as well as the unused Saul Niguez, are at his disposal.
FIFA Ranking: 41st
Morocco failed to find a way past an impossibly handsome Iran side even though their manager more than evened the odds in the photogenic department. The Atlas Lions eventually lost 1-0 courtesy of an own goal from Aziz Bouhaddouz, deep into stoppage time. Defeat against Portugal sees them bottom of the group and packing their bags. Hervé Renard’s side enter this game as heavy underdogs while Spain need to win to win to keep the heat on Portugal in their bid to win the group.
An easing of the pressure the Moroccans experienced in their first two games could result in a more relaxed, exciting performance, even a potential upset. Despite the irrefutable quality that Spain possess, this might be a good time to face them given their off the field problems. An early goal in Kaliningrad could set the Spaniards’ nerves on edge.
For that early goal to come about Morocco will need to be much more composed and clinical in front of goal. Their first two matches were littered with squandered opportunities.
I can only see this going one way. Spain have too much experience and confidence to capitulate against a side which has already had the stuffing knocked out of them twice.
Expect Spain to have the points wrapped up early and for turns to be given to players who have been made to wait while others do the heavy lifting.
As for Morocco, an early exit is unlikely to signal the Renard regime's end. The dashing Frenchman signed a contract running through 2022. His work in qualifying has surely accrued enough credit with the powers that be to give him another shot in four years.