Russia 2018: It was fun while it lasted
This is it. The World Cup Group Stage is coming to an end, and its time to say goodbye to the Middle Eastern teams - Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and Iran, who all played yesterday.
Even though all four have now been eliminated, they gave the World Cup some true football action, thrillers and quality.
Yesterday started with Egypt against Saudi Arabia in a rare Arab Derby on the world's biggest footballing stage.
The Pharaohs looked to improve their unsatisfying World Cup campaign - with Mohamed Salah, and who else, scoring the first for the Egyptians in a hint that Egypt wanted to keep the prestige of being the top Sunni national team in the region.
Catch the match as it happened: LIVEBLOG - Saudi Arabia v Egypt
Saudi Arabia had other ideas. Salman al-Faraj equalised, Fahad al-Muwaallad missed a penalty and Salem al-Dawsari scored a winner in the 95th minute - the Pharaohs' second last-minute defeat in the tournament, and their third overall.
Egypt's World Cup campaign began with such high hopes, but continued through controversy, disputes and their fans falling out of love with their team. Deciding on Chechnya as their base, making unclear changes in their formation, and odd substitutions during matches, all made Egypt look amateur - in a group that included the worst European team in the tournament and Saudi Arabia, ranked by FIFA alongside Panama as the worst teams in the tournament.
A few hours later, in Saransk, the Mordovia Arena was as noisy as a hornets' nest. Team Melli fans filled every corner of the stadium. Iran's supporters made such a huge sound, one could have thought it was the Azadi Stadium in Tehran.
Alireza Beiranvand was hugely excited, almost terrified. He dropped three easy balls and created dangerous situations for his teammates in defence.
Iran stood strong against Portugal for much of the first half, but then on the verge of the break Ricardo Quaresma nailed a goal - his hallmark, a shot with the outside of the boot. It was a real beauty and came in the critical 45th minute to take the momentum into half-time.
The second half was a complete different opera. Iran opened strong, in a similar way as they did against Spain, but Portugal won a penalty, approved by VAR. Cristiano Ronaldo, (who else?) lined up for the shot. In front of him, Beiranvand.
When young, Beiranvand grew up in a nomad family in Iran - but ran away to develop his football career. He was homeless in Tehran, before he started to play for the local Naft Tehran Club. Beiranvand looked to Ronaldo, and stopped the penalty.
This transformed the already sizzling game, with Iran attacking in waves, and Portugal relying on counter-attacks. Iran's coach, Carlos Queiroz, made interesting substitutions who made an impact. The same VAR approved a penalty for Iran, which Karim Ansarifad converted for an equaliser in the 93rd minute. The Mordovia Arena was literally shaking.
Iran had one more chance from which they were unlucky not to score, and it was full time. The Paraguayan referee called the final whistle. Iran 1, Portugal 1.
Meanwhile, Morocco was playing Spain, in another blistering match. Morocco, one of this World Cup's disappointments had already lost any chance of qualification to the knockout round. They took on the mighty Spain, one of the world's top teams, for a lesson on the quality of North African football.
|Morocco's fans and players made enough noise on and off the pitch to make sure they're remembered long after they catch the plane home [TASS]
Morocco, under no pressure to qualify, played fast, attractive football - and scored first, thanks to Khalid Boutaib in the 14th minute. The Maghreb players displayed top notch football, but soon conceded to Real Madrid star Isco. But the Spanish goal failed to dampen Morocco's game, full of counter-attacks, exciting passes and threatening shots.
The Moroccans gave everything they had. Boussouffa, Nordin Amrabat, Hakim Ziyech all shone for Herve Renard's team, and earned an honourable point.
Check out the game as it happened: LIVEBLOG - Spain v Morocco
On the 81st minute they claimed another fantastic goal. En-Nesyri, who had just come on as a sub, headed in to convert a corner set-piece and the smell of a sensation was in the air.
But in the 91st minute, Spain were able to draw equal again, and made it official - Iran, Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia are all leaving Russia. Soon, too, will Tunisia.
The run of the Middle Eastern teams in the World Cup is almost over. The squads deserve the utmost respect, especially Team Melli and the Atlas Lions, for their 2018 World Cup campaigns. They deserve any superlative we could give them.
The lesson here is that experience is the best teacher, and there is much hope - particularly for Morocco and Iran - for the near future.