How VAR transformed Group B: Spain and Portugal progress to World Cup knockouts amid drama

Last-gasp – and controversial – VAR calls changed the complexion of Group B and altered Spain and Portugal’s World Cup knockout route.

In a late twist, Spain, who were in danger of missing out on a last-16 berth completely at one stage, won Group B thanks to an injury-time equaliser against Morocco and Iran’s penalty-spot leveller against Portugal.

That means Spain will now face Russia on Sunday, a day after runners-up Portugal meet Uruguay.

But they weren’t the only VAR calls to spark debate on Monday night. Here’s how it unfolded…

Pique’s two-footed tackle goes unpunished

What happened?

The two teams had already been separated once when Spain’s Gerard Pique launched a two-footed challenge to dispossess Iran’s Khalid Boutaib. But while Sergio Ramos’ head-to-head with Nordin Amrabat was nothing more than posturing, Pique must surely have feared a straight red card for his tackle on 10 minutes. Instead, the referee, who had allowed play to go on, opted not to punish the Spanish defender.

What did VAR do?

Nothing. While Morocco protested on the pitch, there was no interference from the VAR control room or any indication from the referee he was calling for assistance.

What was the impact?

There’s no doubt reducing Spain to 10 men with 80 minutes to play would have benefitted Morocco but they were celebrating just four minutes later anyway when Boutaib raced clear after a mix-up between Andres Iniesta and Ramos to score the opener. Pique then dozed off and almost allowed Boutaib to score another from a quickly-taken long throw, while the Spanish defender also escaped punishment for a handball which stopped another Moroccan attack.

Ronaldo’s penalty appeals waved away – until VAR steps in

What happened?

Five minutes into the second half, Cristiano Ronaldo skipped past a couple of players and went down inside the area under a challenge from Saeid Ezatolahi. Although Ronaldo appeared to have lost control of the ball, he was blocked off by Ezatolahi. Paraguayan referee Enrique Caceres waved away the appeals for a penalty but the decision was referred to VAR.

What did VAR do?

After going over to the video screen to watch the replays of the incident for himself, the referee opted to reverse his original decision and awarded a penalty kick to Portugal.

What was the impact?

The impact was minimal because Ronaldo spurned the chance. He stepped up to take the penalty looking to score the goal that would have taken him level with Harry Kane as the top scorer in the tournament. However, his shot was well saved away to his left by Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand.

Ronaldo escapes a red card

What happened?

With 10 minutes remaining, Iran’s Morteza Pouraliganji went down clutching his face following a swing of the arm by Ronaldo in an off-the-ball incident. The referee could not have been expected to spot the incident in real time but the tangle was investigated by VAR.

What did VAR do?

After a lengthy review of the incident from various angles, the referee appeared to hedge his bets by deciding to issue a yellow card to Ronaldo. It felt like a compromise option because if the referee did feel that the Portugal player had struck Pouraliganji intentionally then a red card seemed to be the likely outcome.

What was the impact?

Despite protests from the Iranian players, Ronaldo stayed on the pitch – but he couldn’t prevent Iran drawing level late on and then going close to what would have been a sensational win in stoppage time.

Spain’s injury-time equaliser is disallowed – and then given

What happened?

With Spain losing 2-1 in injury-time and trailing Portugal in the as-it-stands table, Iago Aspas flicked in a cross with what looked to be an equaliser – until the linesman raised his flag for offside. Sergio Ramos pleaded with the referee to go to VAR and the Ravshan Irmatov agreed a closer look was required.

What did VAR do?

The officials watching the match in the video room took their time to deliberate over the close call. They took several minutes to come to their conclusion. And then, eventually, correctly ruled the goal should stand.

What was the impact?

Morocco, already eliminated from the World Cup, were denied a hard-fought and ultimately deserved victory over the 2010 champions. For Spain, their Group B fortunes were transformed in the blink of an eye. Aspas’ goal, coupled with an almost simultaneous match-levelling penalty for Iran, sent them top of the group – and heading to Moscow to face Russia, rather than the less favourable test against Uruguay in Sochi.

Iran awarded penalty after VAR spots handball

What happened?

In the final minute of the game, VAR was used to check on an Iran penalty appeal as a corner was headed onto the arm of Cedric Soares by Sardar Azmoun at very close range.

What did VAR do?

There was a lengthy delay that extended well into the allotted stoppage time. It even took a while for the referee to decide to watch the replays for himself. After viewing the incident from various angles, he awarded a penalty to Iran, giving them the chance to equalise.

What was the impact?

Karim Ansarifard put his penalty into the top corner of the net to level things up. While Iran could not find the winner that they needed to progress, the goal was enough to ensure that Portugal failed to top the group ahead of Spain and move to the other half of the draw with a game against Uruguay rather than Russia ahead of them in the next round.

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