Against a backdrop of the delightful / infuriating din of vuvuzelas (based on your preference), Spain were a team that was resolute in defence. Carlos Queiroz, the opposition coach, had a reputation for his solid defensive tactics and it was on full view to the world.

Quieroz’s men were frustrating Spain, who enjoyed lion’s share of the possession, but did not produce too many clear-cut chances to show for it. But the goal eventually came in the second half, thanks to Spain’s in-form forward, giving La Roja a 1-0 win on a night when they weren’t at their best.

This was against Portugal in Cape Town, during the 2010 World Cup.

Fast forward to Wednesday’s Group B game at the Kazan Stadium, the story was nearly the same. Only this time, it was Diego Costa scoring a scrappy goal against a well-drilled Iran. With Queiroz at the helm, Iran had more than held their own against the 2010 world champions, who have made a habit of winning World Cup matches 1-0.

While that Portugal side came in for criticism in South Africa for their dour tactics despite the talent at their disposal, there can be no brickbats thrown at Queiroz for the way Iran played on Wednesday. On paper, the gulf in quality between the two sides is massive and Iran were not going to outplay Spain. As Fernando Hierro had expected pre-match, the Iranians came with one plan – stay organised, pack the defensive line and frustrate Spain. For 54 minutes, they did just that.

Spain not at their best

This was one of those classic cases where numbers don’t tell you the whole story of a football match. Because the numbers will tell you Spain had 70% of the possession and 17 attempts on goal, with three of them on target and eight of them blocked. Spain had bossed the match, pretty much.

But for all the domination of the numbers, Spain had one shot on target in the first half, and while they created plenty of half-chances, it was only in the early part of second half that they genuinely started threatening Iran’s goal.

The Asian side, for the large part, kept Spain at an arm’s length, letting them have the ball and left no space behind their six-man defensive line to exploit. David Silva, Isco and Sergio Busquests resorted to shots from distance that were either saved or blocked. Lucas Vazquez and Diego Costa were rendered ineffective.

It took an incisive run from Andres Iniesta to slice open Iran’s defence, and when the goal came, it was an attempted tackle taking a cruel ricochet off Costa’s knee when he lost control of the ball, and nestling into the bottom corner.

If going forward, the fluidity in Spain’s attack was missing, Hierro will know that it’s a fixable issue. There is no doubting the attacking quality of Spain’s squad and all it will take is one good performance for their flair to take full flight.

What will concern him, however, is the defence. Iran finished the game with no shots on target, technically but, again, that doesn’t give you the whole picture.

For Iran, there’s still hope

Let’s ignore the first half, where Iran pretty much decided not to bother attacking Spain’s goal. There was an odd foray forward, the rare cross into the box, but nothing to write home about.

But in the second half, there were moments when the Spain defence looked shaky against Iran’s pace on the flanks and when crosses were delivered deep into the box. Just before Costa’s goal, the ball fell kindly to Karim Ansarifard from a set-piece. From a few yards out, he struck a sweet half-volley that caused the volume levels to go up at the Kazan arena, but it was the side-netting that the ball had ruffled.

There was another moment when not just the crowd, but even the players thought they were back in the match. Saeid Ezatolahi fired the ball through David de Gea’s legs, but no one had spotted the assistant referee put his flag up for offside, which was, after a delay, confirmed by replays. Celebrations turned into frustrations, but once again the Spanish defence had been rattled by a free kick delivered into the six-yard box. (And de Gea’s blushes saved as well).

Towards the end of the match, Vahid Amiri gloriously nutmegged Gerard Pique down the left flank and sent a vicious cross into the box, which Mehdi could only head over despite rising high to meet it. A few inches downward and an equaliser was Iran’s.

The scenes at the end of the match proved telling. Iran players sank to the ground in despair. They knew they didn’t deserve to return empty-handed from this game. They defended heroically, created chances to score and were not troubled to the extent Spain are capable of on their day. And yet, Spain had all three points in the bag.

Crucially though, Iran can take plenty of heart from this game. They have showed over 180 minutes against Spain and Morocco that they can withstand wave after wave of attacks, and if needed, can produce a moment of quality at the other end.

“We showed that we were ready to suffer and ready to compete,” Queiroz said after the match. “I felt we deserved a better result. There’s no doubt Spain play wonderful, stylish football but I thought we deserved more for the way we played. But congratulations to Fernando Hierro and Spain. We will learn a lot from this game. If you think of it like tennis, we had one match point today and we will have another against Portugal. Everything is still open. We are still alive and still dreaming.”

And that’s the key – to dream. Up against Portugal in the final game, they might not have to withstand a barrage on their goal but they will be facing Cristiano Ronaldo. Find a way to keep him quiet and a smash-and-grab win is not completely out of the question. Stranger things have happened in football.