Kazan, Russia (June 20, 2018) — Diego Costa is clearly the player of the tournament for Spain thus far.
Five days after scoring two goals for La Roja, the firey striker added another in Spain’s narrow 1-0 win over Iran on Wednesday. It puts the team into a tie with Portugal at the top of Group B after their Iberian rivals also came away with a 1-0 win earlier in the day against Morocco. The two drew 3-3 in their opening match of the tournament last Friday.
Diego Costa Nets Third Goal of 2018 FIFA World Cup in Spain’s First Win of Tourney
Iranian manager Carlos Queiroz made a tactical switch for this match. After deploying a 3-4-3 formation in their 1-0 win over Morocco to open the tournament, he had his side come out in a 4-2-3-1 against Spain. It precipitated four changes to the starting XI, one of which occurred due to injury as Majid Hosseini replaced Rouzbeh Cheshni.
Spain, looking to rebound from a 3-3 tie with Iberian rivals Portugal in which they conceded a late goal, remained in a 4-2-3-1 shape. But Fernando Hierro did make a few modifications to the lineup. Dani Carvajal and Lucas Vázquez replaced Nacho and Koke respectively. And from a tactical standpoint, Andres Iniesta played a bit differently. One game after functioning more as an attacking winger, the Barcelona legend reverted to his more familiar role as a deep-lying midfield metronome.
Almost immediately, the contrast in styles became apparent. Team Nelli was content to let La Roja implement their tiki-taka possession football while sitting deep, absorbing pressure and hoping to hit their opponent on counterattacks. It showed when Spain brought the ball into the final third. Iran responded by withdrawing into a defensive shell that looked like a back six at times.
The halftime stats provided glaring detail. Spain had over 80 percent possession, outshot Iran 10-2 and passed the ball 297 more times. Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, La Roja’s central midfield hub of distribution, made 91 passes between the two of them in the first half. The Iranians as a whole had just 87.
Early on in the second stanza, Spain vigorously searched for a breakthrough. And they nearly had two within the first five minutes courtesy of Busquets. First came a sequence that nearly culminated in him finding the net off a corner. Almost immediately thereafter, he collected the ball from outside the box and launched it at goal only for Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand to deny him with an acrobatic save.
Oftentimes, soccer can be a cruel game. Iran found that out in a three-minute span beginning in the 52nd minute. It was then that Karim Ansarifard blasted a shot that probably looked like it went in by many at the Kazan Arena. But it inevitably glanced off the side netting. Two minutes later, Costa opened up the scoring for Spain when an attempted clearance from right-back Ramin Rezaeian deflected off his shin and past Beiranvand.
Sometimes luck is all you kneed.
(we'll see ourselves out) pic.twitter.com/B6arwyukFU
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 20, 2018
Iran appeared to have the equalizer in the 63rd minute when Saeid Eztolahi tapped the ball past David De Gea from just outside the six-yard box. But VAR indicated he touched the ball in an offside position just prior. It’s the latest example of the review system, in place at the World Cup for the first time ever, performing smoothly despite predictions from many pundits that it wouldn’t.
Trailing by a single goal, Iran kept opportunistically looking for moments to burst forth in transition. And in the 81st minute, they came immensely close to pulling even. Making a back post run, Mehdi Taremi headed a cross from the left-hand side towards goal. Unfortunately for his team, his chance to become a national hero went begging with his attempt veering slightly over the crossbar.
Ultimately, Costa is having a much better campaign for his country than he realized for his club. The 29-year-old managed just three goals for Atletico Madrid in La Liga play during the 2017-18 season. He’s already equaled that total at this tournament.
Nothing is assured yet for Spain. However, a win in their group finale against Morocco in Kaliningrad will guarantee their passage into the round of 16. Iran can also clinch a spot in the knockout round with a win. But much like today’s match, they’ll be a heavy underdog against Portugal in a game taking place in Saransk. The two matches kick off simultaneously at 2 p.m. ET.