KALININGRAD, Russia -- Three quick thoughts on Spain's 2-2 draw with Morocco in their final group game, which saw Spain clinch top spot in Group B.
1. Spain tops Group B ... barely
For much of the night, it looked like finishing top of the group just wasn't going to happen for Spain. Portugal led for most of its match against Iran, and when Youssef En-Nesyri put Morocco ahead with an 81st-minute header, La Roja looked condemned to finish second. But Iran struck back with a stoppage-time penalty from Karim Ansarifard to secure a draw, and when Iago Aspas scored on a VAR-assisted equalizer in stoppage time, Spain found itself top of Group B after all.
The fightback could prove crucial in Spain's quest to regain the World Cup. Instead of being forced to play Group A winners Uruguay, they now face an easier task against Russia, even with what is expected to be raucous support for the hosts.
Of course, Morocco entered the match having nothing to play for, but anyone thinking there would be any letup in the Atlas Lions' game would have been quickly disabused of that notion. The early exchanges were feisty, and Spain defender Gerard Pique will count himself lucky to have escaped any punishment at all for a two-footed challenge on Khalid Boutaib that caught the Moroccan's ankle.
Boutaib got his revenge, however, in the 14th minute. He pounced on a poor exchange between Andres Iniesta and Sergio Ramos, resulting in a clear breakaway, and the Moroccan midfielder finished through the legs of Spain goalkeeper David De Gea.
Spain didn't have to wait long to get back into the match. La Roja had begun to focus its attacks on the right side of Morocco's defense, and one such foray delivered an equalizer in the 19th minute. A clever sequences of passes saw Diego Costa play Iniesta into the box, and he cut the ball back to a wide-open Isco to fire into the net from seven yards out.
The match continued to serve up all manner of chances, and Boutaib was once again in alone on De Gea in the 25th minute, but this time the Spain goalkeeper was equal to the task, saving the shot with his right thigh.
Iniesta continued to torment Morocco down the left side, and he nearly orchestrated the go-ahead goal just before half-time, but Costa couldn't redirect the Barcelona man's centering feed on frame.
Morocco nearly took the lead in the 55th minute, when Nordin Amrabat's fierce drive hit the corner of the woodwork and bounced out.
Isco thought he had scored a second in the 62nd minute, but his goal-bound header was headed off the line by Morocco defender Romain Saiss, and Pique's header from the ensuing corner just missed the target.
Spain looked to be in control, yet it was Morocco who went ahead with less than 10 minutes to go. Faycal Fajr swung in a corner, and En-Nesyri beat Sergio Ramos to the ball and put his header in the top corner.
At that point, Morocco thought it was on track for a famous victory, only for Aspas to score with a clever back-heel in stoppage time. Initially the goal was waved off for offside, but VAR came to Spain's rescue.
2. Spain doesn't look right
Given that Spain didn't make it out of the group stage four years ago, the fact that La Roja moved into the second round, as group winners no less, counts as progress. That said, there are aspects of Spain's game that don't look right at all. Sure, Spain's tiki-taka style shows no signs of going away, and on this night, chance creation wasn't an issue, though it was less effective as the match went on. But the sight of Morocco getting two breakaways as well scoring En-Nesyri's goal from a corner indicates that defensively Spain isn't close to being sharp.
It's easy to conjure up all manner of reasons for why Fernando Hierro's side isn't in top form, the easiest being that Hierro was thrown into the job just days before the tournament. A series of crunching tackles from Morocco did plenty to put Spain off their game. There's always the mental challenge of playing a team that has already been eliminated.
But the mistakes plaguing Spain can't be confined to one game. The Portugal game witnessed a conceded penalty and a howler from De Gea, who has now conceded five goals on six shots on goal for the tournament. There were shaky moments against Iran as well, despite the staggering edge in possession Spain had. The match against Morocco proved to be no different.
There was also the rather incredible decision by Spain to go away from what worked so well in the first half, namely attacking the right side of Morocco's defense. All it accomplished was to make Morocco look more secure in defense.
The good news is that Spain is still getting the results they need, and there is time to clean things up. But overall there is a sloppiness to La Roja's play in the back that figures to get punished more severely against a more disciplined and talented opponent.
3. For Morocco, a sense of "What if?"
This is a result the Atlas Lions can no doubt be proud of given the pedigree of the opposition. But it will also serve to increase an overriding sense of what might have been. What if Aziz Bouhaddouz hadn't conceded a last-minute own goal in the opener against Iran? What if Morocco had been able to get the goal against Portugal that some of its buildup play warranted?
There was certainly a rising sense of frustration in Morocco's play. That was especially evident during a 10-minute spell in the first half that saw Kharim El Ahmadi, Mbark Boussoufa, Manuel da Costa and Amrabat all get booked.
To its credit, Morocco regained its composure, kept to its task, and even took the lead.
There is often talk of a team getting what it deserved. Morocco certainly impressed plenty of neutrals in this tournament. But the reality is that at some point a team has to make the kind of difference-making plays -- at both ends of the field -- that propel a side into the second round, and Morocco didn't make nearly enough of them. This match was a case in point.