Spain can put their pre-tournament problems behind them and win World Cup Group B, if they beat Morocco in Kaliningrad and better Portugal’s result against Iran on Monday evening.
A nightmare start against Portugal, trailing to Cristiano Ronaldo’s fourth-minute penalty less than two days after Julen Lopetegui’s sacking on the eve of the tournament, looks a world away since Fernando Hierro led his country to joint-top of the group after two games.
It means the 2010 World Cup winners look like avoiding a repeat of the humiliation they suffered four years ago in Brazil, but they must still overcome a Morocco side who, although eliminated, were only narrowly beaten by Portugal in their last game.
Temporary coach Hierro has compared the current crop of players with the 2010 world champions, rather than the 2014 cohort.
“It’s a similar group, although I know that you can’t have clones unfortunately,” he told Onda Cero.
“But we have a back-up group pushing for places every day.”
“That is the only way to avoid relaxing, by having a group of team-mates that push you closer to the limit every day.”
“And we have [Cesar] Azpilicueta, [Nacho] Monreal, Saul [Niguez], Koke, [Alvaro] Odriozola, Iago Aspas, Rodrigo and Thiago [Alcantara].”
“They don’t allow the others to rest.”
“It’s beautiful to see them training and they can be important at any moment.”
Although Morocco’s chances of qualifying for the knockout stages are already over, they could make headlines by potentially having a significant role in who finishes top of Group B.
But coach Herve Renard is only focused on ending the country’s tournament on a high, having fallen to narrow defeats to Iran and Portugal so far.
“My job is not to try and please people.”
“My job is to challenge the Spanish team, to cause difficulties and to make the Moroccan people even prouder,” Renard said.
That Portugal defeat, while according to the manager partly down to poor refereeing, did also see the north African side spurn a number of chances.
Hanard shied away from pointing fingers ahead of the final group game, however, with Morocco yet to score in the tournament after two rounds of matches.
“For a team to be efficient, productive, it is team play,” he said.
“We’ve not been efficient together, so I won’t put blame on any particular player.”
Pepe Reina, Spain’s second-choice goalkeeper, may miss the game through injury. Nacho Monreal, who missed several days of training with injury, should be fit to take up a place on the bench.
There are no new injury concerns for Morocco, who are likely to hand Nordin Amrabat another start despite suffering concussion in the first game with Iran.
- Spain and Morocco have faced each other just twice before – a two-legged qualification play-off for World Cup 1962, with Spain winning 1-0 away and 3-2 at home.
- Spain have won three of their four World Cup matches against African opponents (L1), scoring 11 goals and never fewer than two per game.
- Morocco have already been eliminated from the 2018 World Cup; they have now been eliminated at the group stage in four of their five World Cup campaigns, only progressing in the 1986 tournament.
- Morocco have lost four of their last six World Cup matches against European opposition (W1 D1), losing against Portugal most recently (1-0 in MD2).
- Should they lose this match, it will be only the second time that Morocco have lost all of their World Cup group matches in a single campaign, having previously done so in 1994.
- Spain have finished top of their group in three of the last four World Cup tournaments (before 2018), the only exception in this run is in 2014 when they finished third.
- Spain have won their final group game in each of the last eight World Cup tournaments, a run stretching back to 1986.
- Morocco have fired in more shots than their opposition in each of their last six World Cup defeats (v Portugal and Iran in 2018; Brazil in 1998; Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and Belgium in 1994).
- Striker Diego Costa has scored nine goals in his last nine international starts for Spain.