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Late Aspas strike sends Spain into World Cup round of 16

KALININGRAD Russia (Xinhua) -- Iago Aspas came off the bench to score a stunning late goal as Spain secured a berth in the World Cup round of 16 with a dramatic 2-2 draw against Morocco here on Monday.

Needing at least a draw to be guaranteed of a place in the first knockout stage, Spain looked in danger of being eliminated when Yousseff En-Nesyri, also a second-half substitute, gave Morocco the lead with an 81st-minute header.

But Aspas equalized in the second minute of stoppage time with a delicate flick that was originally ruled out for offside before the decision was overturned by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR).

Khalid Boutaib had given the African side the lead in the first half before Spain drew level through Real Madrid midfielder Isco.

The result means that Spain finished the tournament’s first stage as Group B leaders and they will now face hosts Russia in the round of 16 on July 1. Portugal also progressed to the next phase by taking second spot after drawing with Iran 1-1 in the other match.

Their group rivals Iran and Morocco were eliminated, with this result giving the African side their only point.

The tone was set for a physical match in the opening minutes at Kaliningrad Stadium, with both sides committing strong challenges early. Nordin Amrabat was involved in a skirmish with Diego Costa and Gerard Pique was lucky not to be sanctioned for a studs-up challenge on striker Boutaib.

Morocco struck against the run of play in the 13th minute after a rare error from Andres Iniesta, who failed to control the ball on the halfway line. A moment’s hesitation from Sergio Ramos then allowed Boutaib to pounce and gallop clear on goal.

Despite the best efforts of Pique to close him down, the Yeni Malatyaspor striker held his nerve to fire the ball in between David de Gea’s legs.

It took five minutes for Iniesta to atone for his mistake. The former Barcelona midfielder ran onto a Costa pass in the left channel and pulled the ball back from the byline, allowing Isco to smash into the top corner.

Despite the early breakthrough, Spain continued to look uneasy against Morocco’s high pressing. Boutaib was again presented with a chance following another turnover, but his shot was blocked by De Gea.

Hakim Ziyech then sent Spanish hearts fluttering when his long range shot flew just over the bar.

Spain were also creating plenty of chances, particularly through Iniesta, who was causing problems for Morocco right-back Nabil Dirar with his clever runs into the penalty area. The 34-year-old again hit the byline at pace but an onrushing Costa just failed to reach his cross into the six-yard box.

Despite allowing Spain to dominate possession, Morocco posed an ever-constant threat on the few occasions that they raided forward.

Boutaib went inches away from a second goal by sending an audacious 25-yard shot with the outside of his right boot cannoning off the top of the left post, with De Gea unmoved on the line.

With Iniesta and Isco dictating terms, Spain at times looked as though they were taking part in a training exercise as they passed the ball around at will.

But the 2010 world champions were guilty of spurning three chances in short succession; Isco and Pique failing to hit the target with headers and Thiago Alcantara pulling a shot wide from the edge of the box.

Spain coach Fernando Hierro brought on Aspas and Marco Asensio with a double change in the 74th minute in a bid to give his team a spark.

But it was the decision by Morocco coach Herve Renard to replace Boutaib with En-Nesyri that changed the course of the match, at least initially. The Malaga forward rose highest to meet a Faycal Fajr corner with a powerful header that left De Gea with no chance and handed his team their first goal of the tournament.

Morocco celebrated wildly but Spain were not finished. Dani Carvajal whipped in a cross from the right and Aspas timed his run into the box superbly before turning and sending a sublime backheel flick beyond the reach of Monir El Kajoui.

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UPDATES:

Spain need to cut out errors: Isco

KALININGRAD Russia (Xinhua) -- Spain must cut down on careless errors if they are to advance to the latter stages of the World Cup in Russia, midfielder Isco said after the Roja booked a place in the round of 16 on Monday.

Needing at least a draw against Morocco to advance to the knockout stage without relying on other results, Spain looked in danger of bowing out after Yousseff En-Nesyri’s 81st-minute header here.

But substitute Iago Aspas equalized in the second minute of stoppage time with a back-heel flick that was originally ruled out for offside before the decision was overturned by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR).

Khalid Boutaib had given Morocco an early lead after a counter-attack before Isco drew Spain level by firing in from close range minutes later.

“We need to get our act together or we’ll be going home,” Isco told reporters. “We have again gone out onto the pitch a little hesitant.”

“We need to make it easier on ourselves and not make so many errors at dead-ball situations. Now the important part of the tournament starts and we know that it’s going to be very difficult.”

Monday’s result means that Spain finished the tournament’s first stage as Group B leaders with five points. They will now face hosts Russia in the round of 16 on July 1. Portugal also progressed to the next phase by taking second spot, equal on points with Spain but with fewer goals scored.

Their group rivals Iran and Morocco were eliminated, with four points and one point respectively.

Isco praised the use of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), which ruled that Aspas’ goal should stand after initially being flagged for offside.

“That’s what VAR is for, so that points aren’t taken away from you,” the Real Madrid midfielder said. “It’s good for everybody and means that there are less injustices.”

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Morocco leave Russia with ‘heads held high’: coach

KALININGRAD Russia (Xinhua) -- Morocco coach Herve Renard said his players will depart the World Cup in Russia with their “heads held high” despite failing to advance beyond the group stage.

The African side secured their only point of the tournament with a 2-2 draw against Spain here on Monday. It followed 1-0 losses to Iran and Portugal.

“Of course we wanted to win today,” Renard told a news conference. “We’ve done everything we could today. It was a good experience for us. Portugal and Spain are the two best teams in the world but we presented our team at the World Cup very well. We’re leaving Russia with our heads held high.”

Morocco looked like pulling off on upset when second-half substitute Yousseff En-Nesyri gave his team the lead with an 81st-minute header.

But Iago Aspas, who was also introduced late, equalized in the second minute of stoppage time with a delicate flick that was originally ruled out for offside before the decision was overturned by the Video Assistant Referee.

“We learned that we can play at a very high level. You should be proud of all our players. This is something that I will always remember,” Renard added.

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Thiago replaces Vazquez for Spain duel with Morocco

KALININGRAD Russia (Xinhua) -- Spain coach Fernando Hierro made one change for his team’s World Cup Group B clash with Morocco here on Monday, recalling Bayern Munich midfielder Thiago Alcantara to the starting lineup and leaving out winger Lucas Vazquez.

Morocco coach Herve Renard also made one change, replacing captain Mehdi Benatia with Romain Saiss at center-back.

Spain and Portugal lead the group with four points each from two matches. Iran are one point behind and Morocco are last with no points.

           

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