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Spain, Portugal reach W. Cup knockout round

Spain players celebrate after their 2-2 draw with Morocco that took them to the World Cup round of 16. PHOTO/FIFA

Moscow, Russia, Jun 25- Spain and Portugal reached the World Cup last 16 on Monday on a dramatic evening dominated by VAR decisions.

Spain drew 2-2 with Morocco to top Group B thanks to a late Iago Aspas equaliser that was referred to the video assistant referee and Iran held Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal to a 1-1 draw.

Fernando Hierro’s Spain, the 2010 world champions, will play Russia in the next round in Moscow on Sunday while European champions Portugal face Uruguay in Sochi the previous day.

In Kaliningrad, Aspas scored a VAR-assisted equaliser in injury time as Spain scrambled a 2-2 draw with Morocco in a dramatic finale to their Group B campaign.

Aspas’s winner, initially disallowed but awarded after intervention from the Video Assistant Referee, saw Spain stumble into the last 16 as group winners.

Spain Captain Sergio ramos celebrates with Iago Aspas after his late equalizer against Morocco. PHOTO/FIFA

The Spaniards will now face World Cup hosts Russia in the second round after Portugal were held to a 1-1 draw by Iran in the night’s other game.

Spain survived a real scare from a spirited Morocco side who had been leading 2-1 when the 90th minute began.

Aspas’ clever flick from a wide free kick was initially adjudged by the assistant referee to have been offside.

But after intervention from VAR it was given as a goal, much to the consternation of the Moroccan players and substitutes, some of whom stormed the pitch in protest.

Morocco coach Herve Renard said before the game his team, the first to be eliminated this tournament, had been victim to “total injustice” in their opening 1-0 losses.

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The North Africans, who had yet to score a point or even a goal before Monday, started brightly, compact without the ball and breaking at speed.

Morocco took the lead on 14 minutes when Boutaib took advantage of a horrible mix-up between Sergio Ramos and Andres Iniesta to race through and slide the ball calmly through David De Gea’s legs.

Spain were level five minutes later when some crisp passing sent Iniesta free inside Morocco’s box. He cut back with the outside of his right boot to Isco, who fired into the roof of Monir El-Kajoui’s net from six yards.

The Real Madrid playmaker was at the heart of every Spain attack, caressing clever passes to teammates and weaving past wrong-footed defenders.

They weren’t complaining minutes later, however, when substitute Youssef En-Nesyri headed home the corner that followed to the rapture of the Moroccan supporters.

Boutaib missed a glorious chance to restore the advantage when he found Spain’s centre backs sleeping off a quick throw only to fluff the one-on-one with De Gea.

But La Roja should have gone in ahead at half-time, with Iniesta’s square pass missing Diego Costa’s outstretched right boot by millimetres from point blank.

Morocco sat back in the second period and invited Spain to try to break them down.

When they regained possession they broke with pace and purpose, and nearly took the lead after 55 minutes when Noureddine Amrabat’s right-foot scorcher from distance cannoned off the crossbar.

Isco’s header on the hour mark forced a goal-line clearance from Ghanem Saiss, chosen by Renard to start over captain Mehdi Benatia.

Morocco were aggrieved not to be awarded a penalty 10 minutes from time when the ball struck Pique’s fist in the area.

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They weren’t complaining minutes later, however, when substitute Youssef En-Nesyri headed home the corner that followed to the rapture of the Moroccan supporters.

But Aspas’ late equaliser took some of the gloss of what had been a spirited and well-drilled performance.

-Portugal scrap draw

Cristiano Ronaldo reacts after missing his penalty against Iran. PHOTO/FIFA

In Saransk, Ronaldo missed a penalty before Portugal conceded an injury-time spot-kick in a 1-1 draw with Iran as the European champions set up a last-16 clash with Uruguay.

Ricardo Quaresma curled in a trademark trivela goal on the stroke of half-time at the Mordovia Arena, but Karim Ansarifard’s late penalty dropped Portugal to second in Group B behind neighbours Spain.

Ronaldo won a second-half spot-kick after a video review but saw his effort saved, with the Real Madrid star unable to add to his four-goal tally at the tournament.

Portugal will face Uruguay in Sochi on July 30 for a place in the quarter-finals after ending Iran’s hopes of reaching the knockout phase for the first time.

Fernando Santos will hope Joao Moutinho recovers after the Monaco midfielder was restricted to a late substitute appearance in Saransk because of illness, with Quaresma one of three changes to the team that defeated Morocco 1-0.

Ronaldo, scorer of all four Portugal goals in his country’s first two games, forced Iran goalkeeper Ali Beiranvand into an early save after barging his way into the box.

Iran scored a late penalty against Portugal to leave in a nervous ending. PHOTO/FIFA

Joao Mario should have put Portugal in front after a defensive mix-up between Saeid Ezatolahi and Beiranvand, but the Inter Milan midfielder blazed over.

Iran’s first genuine sight of goal came on 34 minutes when Ezatolahi directed a firm header from a free-kick straight into the grateful hands of Rui Patricio.

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Quaresma fired Portugal ahead just before the interval when he exchanged passes with Adrien Silva before bending home in style from the edge of the area with the outside of his right foot.

Ronaldo had the chance to double the lead five minutes into the second half after he was upended by Ezatolahi, with a spot-kick awarded following consultation with the video assistant referee (VAR).

But the Portugal captain was denied by Beiranvand who dived to his left to smother Ronaldo’s attempt.

Iran coach Carlos Queiroz remonstrated angrily with the officials as Saman Ghoddos appeared to be impeded by William Carvalho inside the area.

The referee consults the VAR during teh Portugal v Iran game. PHOTO/FIFA

There was no VAR intervention on that occasion, but referee Enrique Caceres trotted over to the pitchside monitor after an altercation between Ronaldo and Morteza Pouraliganji.

Ronaldo caught the Iran defender with a forearm across the face, Pouraliganji falling to the ground in a heap as the Portugal forward ultimately escaped with a yellow card.

Iran earned a stoppage-time penalty, again with the help of VAR, when Sardar Azmoun’s header struck the arm of Cedric after the pair contested a deep cross.

Substitute Ansarifard buried his effort into the roof of the net to set up a dramatic finish.

Mehdi Taremi could have snatched a stunning winner after a deflected shot rolled into his path, but he fired into the side netting as Iran fell agonisingly short.

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