When Spain were pitted against Asian powerhouses Iran in the quarterfinals of the FIFA U17 World Cup underway in India, the connoisseurs of the game licked their lips in anticipation of a contest between two strong outfits at Kochi.
Spain, who started the tournament with a defeat to Brazil at the same venue, were peaking at the right time while Iran had already sent shockwaves through the tournament when they dismantled Germany 4-0 in a group stage match. Moreover, they were unbeaten so far and possessed physique and pace which was expected to unsettle the Spaniards.
There was a decent crowd in to watch the match as well, given it was the final one at Kochi, though the numbers never matched up to what Brazil games attracted.
But instead of a bold and enterprising Iran who had captured the collective imagination of the tournament, it was a timid and nervous Iran who turned up against the European giants in the opening half an hour.
Lining up in a 4-5-1 without star striker Younes Delfi, Iran were looking to sit deep and play on the counter against Spain who were expected to boss possession. That is an understandable approach as long as the team constricted spaces in the opposition's attacking third and pressed well.
Iran did neither and were guilty of allowing Spain's midfielders and wide men enough time to enjoy an afternoon siesta and then attack. As such, Barcelona starlet Abel Ruiz thrived as the striker, capitalising on fine work from wingers Ferran Torres and Sergio Gomez (also from Barcelona) to score the opener and cause all sorts of trouble to the Asian defence.
But it was Real Madrid man Alvaro Blanco, who was performing the role of a holding midfielder, who shone the brightest. Blanco was absolutely outstanding in the first half, sitting in front of the defence and protecting them with ease. But he was also assured in possession and displayed a commendable passing range which helped Spain launch attacks with ease.
It was from one of his many long diagonals that Ferran Torres began the move that would culminate in the opening goal. Another player who made the difference in the first half was Valencia's Torres, whose pace on the right wing would have given Iran left-back Ahmad Jalali nightmares. He got past Jalali with consummate ease on multiple occasions and only a combination of desperate defending and bad luck prevented Spain from doubling their lead in the first half.
Iran needed a kick up their backside at half-time and seemed to have got it with the first five to ten minutes of the second half witnessing a physically assertive Team Melli who put themselves about in a bid to intimidate Spain. However, the intensity dropped soon after and Spain capitalised in ruthless fashion. First, midfielder Mohammad Sharifi was guilty of allowing Sergio Gomez too much space and time outside the box and the Barcelona man went on to smash an absolute worldie with his left-foot.
Iran poured forward as a result and La Furia Roja picked them off with a stunning counterattack in the 67th minute. Cesar Gelabert, Abel Ruiz and Mohammad Moukhliss were all involved before the latter's square pass was tucked in by Torres for a deserved goal.
That literally sealed the result as Spain eased their feet off the pedal as they took off Blanco, presumably to save him for the semifinal. And Iran's consolation goal only three minutes later reinforced the belief that they were unnecessarily timid at the beginning.
''We had too much respect for them (Spain). We did not start good. You know our players are still young. But I think in the second half our players tried hard and earned more. Our big problem is the connection between defence to attack,'' explained Iran's coach Abbas Chamanyan on their poor start.
With even the centre-back flowing forward, the Spanish defence could not handle the aerial advantage Iran had and conceded a cheap goal but a come back at that stage was literally impossible.
Though the crowd, wanting to see an exciting end to the game, got wholeheartedly behind Iran's efforts to put Spain under pressure, the Asians had left too big a job for themselves. And only the profligacy of Abel Ruiz who missed a couple of sitters on the counter prevented Iran from finding themselves on the end of an embarassing scoreline.
But Spain won't be worried at all. On a familiar ground, they brought their A-game and qualified for the semifinals where they will take on Mali this Wednesday. Perhaps, their only regret might be that they won't be playing any more matches at the Jawaharlal Nehru International stadium in Kochi, which has hosted its final game of the tournament.