According to Sergio Busquets, football has not been fair to Morocco and they agree. Hervé Renard insisted that his team, out of the World Cup after being defeated twice in two games, were victims of an “injustice” at the hands of VAR, and Spain’s midfielder said they had deserved more. But that does not mean there will be pity when they meet here on Monday night. Spain cannot afford for there to be; the difference between first place and second in Group B is too significant. If, that is, Spain qualify at all – and their coach, Fernando Hierro, was swift to remind them they are not yet through to the last 16.
Spain and Portugal go into the final game of the group level on four points, with Portugal ahead by virtue of having collected one yellow card fewer. Portugal face Iran, who have three points and the chance to go through, while Spain face Morocco. The two Iberian neighbours know that they must each get a better result than the other to top the group. The reward comes with a possible path to a final that could read: Russia or Uruguay, then Croatia, followed by England or Belgium in a semi-final, rather than Uruguay or Russia, France and then Brazil or Germany.
By the time they take the field, they will know whether the first game awaiting the winners of this group is Uruguay or Russia; what they won’t know is what comes next and nor, Hierro said, should that concern them. It is rare that a manager expresses a preference – not least because of their habit of coming back to bite you – but he did say that Spain’s intention was to win the group. The first task, though, is to emerge from it, and he avoided suggesting that Spain would chase a big scoreline.
“Our obligation is to get the three points and if we are top of the group so much the better, perfect,” Hierro said. “We have to play well, win and forget what is happening in the other game. We have enough to worry about without worrying about other things. Mathematically we are not through, so we have to treat this match with the importance that it has on its own. This is our third game and right now there is nothing beyond that for us. Hopefully we can have a fourth, and a fifth, a sixth, a seventh.”
Hierro then added: “To win a World Cup you have to beat almost all the good teams and you can’t choose one place or another.”
That is not entirely true, of course, and Busquets admitted that he had looked at the way the draw is shaping up. “We know what the options are, but there’s only one option for this match: win, play well, finish first. Theoretically there may be fewer favourites [on their side of the draw if they win the group] but this is a World Cup in which we’ve seen a lot of equality. Being a favourite is something you have to prove on the pitch.”
Although securing a better result may appear likely for Spain given that Portugal face a team fighting to go through, the misfortune of Morocco served as a warning here. Renard added another. “We will prepare this game like any other,” he said. “We’re ready to fight like lions for the honour of Morocco.”
Within the Spain camp there is a feeling that Morocco are better side than their results suggest. Morocco cited VAR as the explanation for that. “It’s unjust that we are already out when you see all that went on against Portugal,” Renard said. The goalkeeper Munir El Kajoui added: “It was 100% unfair. [VAR] has been decisive and thrown us out – a couple of details in the match which hurt us a great deal.”
Busquets did not focus on the decisions that had gone against Spain’s final group opponents but he did agree that they had deserved more. “Football is often unfair,” he said. “The level they have shown is higher than the zero points they have and that tells you how difficult it is to win a game at the World Cup.”
Hierro added: “We know they’re a very good team. When you look at it, they lost the first game to an own goal in the 93rd minute and they were very good against Portugal. Sometimes you relax when you play an eliminated team and we can’t do that.
“We have to have the lights switched on and our eyes wide open. No one is going to gift us anything. We have to play well. We can’t get inside their head, we don’t know what they are going to do, so we have to have total faith in our own ability, in our personality and our qualities; we’re a team that wants the ball, that has qualities we’re proud of. We have to stop their transitions.”
Asked whether that meant that Spain may opt for a muscular midfield, Hierro grinned. “If it’s muscles that decide …” he began. “We’re something else. We have our conditions, our physique, our way of understanding the game. Muscles are not our thing, I don’t think.”