In a chaotic World Cup, Spain have lost a coach and won just one game, but remain ultimately where they want to be after winning Group B in dramatic fashion with the help of VAR.
Iago Aspas’s injury time equaliser to secure a 2-2 draw against already eliminated Morocco had initially been ruled out by an errant offside flag before the video assistant referee intervened.
“Long live VAR! But like this we won’t win the World Cup,” declared the front page of Spanish sports daily Marca on Tuesday.
A last minute solution to patch up the errors of a miserable start is the story of Spain’s World Cup so far.
Coach Julen Lopetegui was sacked two days before their tournament opener against Portugal, with Fernando Hierro rushed into the role despite his lack of previous managerial experience.
Hierro has been unable to match the heights of La Roja’s brilliant qualifying campaign under Lopetegui, although he was praised for the impact of his substitutions against Morocco as Aspas and Rodrigo came off the bench to save the day.
By winning the group Spain face hosts Russia in Moscow on Sunday and find themselves on the more favourable side of the draw, as is reflected by their new status as tournament favourites by bookmakers.
However, a series of defensive lapses need to be eradicated if they are to go any further.
“We like to be clear and honest,” said captain Sergio Ramos, who was at fault for both Moroccan goals. “This is not the way forward.
“The group stages always allow you a margin for error, these errors from now on send you home.”
Transparent’ De Gea
Ramos and Gerard Pique have at times endured a frosty off-field relationship due to their roles as figureheads for the Real Madrid-Barcelona rivalry.
On the field, though, they have rarely been questioned with multiple Champions League medals for their clubs and World Cup and European Championship winners for Spain.
Both have been error-strewn so far in Russia with Pique also lucky to escape an early red card against Morocco.
Behind them David de Gea looks a different goalkeeper to the one who has won Manchester United’s player of the year for four of the past five seasons.
De Gea let a simple Cristiano Ronaldo effort through his hands in a thrilling 3-3 draw with Portugal and has made just one save in three games.
“Goalkeepers have moments where they lose their confidence and become transparent because they don’t make any saves. That is what is happening right now to De Gea,” former Spanish international ‘keeper Santi Canizares told radio station Cadena SER.
De Gea’s understudy, Athletic Bilbao’s Kepa Arrizabalaga, has never even started a competitive international. But there are increasing calls for the 23-year-old to be thrown into the intimidating atmosphere of 80,000 home fans baying for an upset at the Luzhniki Stadium this weekend.
“From now the games of life and death begin and we can’t continue gifting goals away,” said Isco, Spain’s best performer in Russia to date.
Heroes of Spain’s three successive tournament wins between 2008 and 2012, Andres Iniesta and David Silva’s places in the team are also under threat from the more youthful Koke, Saul Niguez and Marco Asensio.
Hierro promised to make “as few changes as possible” when hired less than two weeks ago. Now he is under pressure to revolutionise his team to ensure Spain remain in Russia.