It took a moment of Cristiano Ronaldo genius to deny Spain three points in their opening World Cup fixture last week, and Diego Costa was also robbed of the headlines he deserved in the wake of the Portuguese’s magical hat-trick.
But on Wednesday the Brazil-born striker was the difference-maker as La Roja finally managed to break down a superbly-drilled and fantastically brave Iran side to win 1-0 in Kazan and put themselves on the verge of a place in the last 16.
Unlike their slick performance in the 3-3 draw in Sochi, this was a stuttering showing from Fernando Hierro’s side as the Iranians frustrated them for long spells with their deep defensive line and insistence on playing the waiting game.
For too much of the contest Spain had no cutting edge, with their possession rate hovering around the 80 per cent mark but their threats on Ali Beiranvand’s goal remaining close to zero. Diego Costa regularly found himself dropping well out of the area to get any sort of action as Iran’s 11-man defensive operation stifled Spain’s game.
When the breakthrough eventually arrived it was as scrappy as Spain’s attacking had been for the large part of proceedings to that point.
A short pass from Lucas Vazquez aimed for Andres Iniesta managed to entice an Iranian defender out of position, allowing the Barcelona midfielder to advance and as Diego Costa attempted to finish on the turn at the far post Ramin Rezaeian’s attempted interception cannoned off the Spain striker’s knee and found the corner of the net.
It was far from the most memorable goal in far from the most memorable game, but it went to underline the big front man’s threat. He had been quiet throughout most of the match but had found a way to make a difference, and when Diego Costa is causing havoc it can only be good news for Atletico Madrid and Spain.
But just as it looked as though Iran’s need to press higher up the pitch might open up more frequent opportunities for Spain, Carlos Queiroz’s side found the net. Unfortunately for the 15,000-plus raucous Iranians in the crowd their joy was short-lived as the VAR confirmed the assistant referee’s on-field decision that Saeid Ezatolahi had been marginally offside in the build-up.
It is arguable that Iran deserved more than they got, and had Mehdi Taremi’s powerful header from a delicious Vahid Amiri cross found the target they may have earned a share of the spoils. Instead they go into their final group B clash with Portugal knowing that in all likelihood they will need a win to progress.
For Spain there is the certainty of knowing that a draw with the already-eliminated Morocco will be enough to progress, but they also won’t need telling that they need to perform much better going forward.
They netted a total of eight goals in winning the World Cup in South Africa eight years ago, but they will need to pass the ball quicker and stretch teams more readily if they are to have a chance of emulating their achievements of 2010 in Russia.
Yet they know that for as long as Diego Costa is on form, they have a chance. Technically, he now has three goals to his name from just two shots in this tournament so far and it would take a brave person to back against him adding more to his tally.
Spain, on this evidence, have plenty of flaws. But you wouldn’t count Diego Costa as one of them.
Man of the match – Isco
Isco was at the heart of Spain’s play and saw more of the ball than anyone on the pitch with 138 touches. He completed 92% of his passes and played eight crosses – another high. He found shooting opportunities and also won the ball back as many times as anyone else in his side. On a night when the Iran defence deserved praise, he was key in wearing them down.
‘We had one match point’ – what they said
Iran boss Carlos Queiroz: “We showed that we were ready to suffer and ready to compete.
“There’s no doubt Spain play wonderful, stylish football but we deserved more for the way we played.
“We will learn a lot from this game. If you think of it like tennis, we had one match point today and we will have another against Portugal. Everything is still open. We are still alive and still dreaming.”
Spain boss Fernando Hierro: “What I can say is that we have three more points. We knew it was going to be very difficult and, sure enough, it was a very complex game.
“There were times in both halves when things were tough. During the break, we knew we had a plan and we carried it out – my players did what they had to do.
“Iran are a strong team and it’s very tough to score against them. We knew how hard it would be. But once again my players have given everything.”
Former Chelsea striker Chris Sutton on BBC Radio 5 live: “Iran had a game plan and they sat deep and let Spain come on to them.
“But in a funny way, Spain’s goal gave Iran belief, because that’s when they really went for it.
“They gave absolutely everything and I felt so sorry for them lying down on the pitch at the end.”