Fernando Hierro has guided Spain from crisis to World Cup group winners

KALININGRAD, Russia -- Two weeks ago, Fernando Hierro thought he would be enjoying the World Cup as technical director for the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF). He would ride the emotional roller coaster of watching Spain, make sure the administrative issues surrounding the team were running smoothly and help out manager Julen Lopetegui when needed.

But the real pressure would be on Lopetegui, who would make the crunch decisions that would no doubt have a huge say on how far La Roja would progress in the tournament.

Of course, by now everyone knows what happened next. Lopetegui was dismissed June 13 -- just two days before Spain's first game at the World Cup -- after it was revealed that he had signed a contract with Real Madrid to take over as their next manager after the tournament. He did this without informing his bosses at the RFEF until literally minutes before the club announced it. It was left to Hierro to step in under emergency circumstances.

Two schools of thought soon emerged. One wondered openly just how much managing Hierro would have to do. This is a veteran group, after all, containing the likes of Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, David Silva and Andres Iniesta. This is a team that could practically manage itself, or so the thinking -- or was it more hoping? -- went. So the fact that the sum total of Hierro's managerial experience was a single season in the Segunda Division with Real Oviedo was glossed over to a degree.

The other line of thinking is that Hierro isn't making the decisions. It's been suggested more than once in the past two days that someone else is pulling the strings, including one theory that Lopetegui is some manager Svengali, directing things behind the scenes.

"Lopetegui has his job now, and I've got my job now. We're not sending texts to each other," Hierro said with no small amount of patience. "We each have our own personality and our own identity. I'm the head coach. We are friends, and we might communicate as friends, but we don't talk about tactics. Please don't think I call Julen and ask him. That's water under bridge. I'm aware of my responsibilities."

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The first line of thinking shortchanges just how crucial a manager's influence can be, because no matter how experienced the side, there are still moments when a manager has to make difficult decisions. The second underestimates Hierro himself.

So of course, on Monday night against an already eliminated Morocco side which was proving especially stubborn, Hierro was tested on both counts and emerged with considerable credit.

With the score tied 1-1 with 16 minutes to go, Hierro made a move that outwardly looked counterintuitive. He made a double switch that included bringing off forward Diego Costa and replacing him with Iago Aspas. Costa has already bagged three goals in this World Cup, and provides the kind of physical presence that can score an ugly goal when needed.

Initially, it looked like Hierro's move wouldn't so much backfire as be inconsequential. An 81st-minute header from Morocco's Youssef En-Nesyri put the Atlas Lions ahead and seemingly in control. But then Hierro's move did pay off, as Aspas' delightful back-heel in the second minute of stoppage time gave Spain a 2-2 draw that secured top spot in their group.

"I knew in those final meters [Aspas] could be decisive and that's what he did," Hierro said through a translator. "He's an intelligent lad, he knows how to finish, he's very lively, and is very smart in footballing terms. He came in with a great deal of intensity, putting a lot of pressure on the opponent, appearing where they weren't expecting him, and that's exactly what we needed. We needed someone who could move in the little space that was available in their penalty area."

So three games into his international managerial career, Hierro can point to Spain finishing atop Group B, one that was trickier than it might have looked on paper. Yet there are still some considerable issues facing this Spain team which need to be rectified. La Roja have conceded five goals in three games, which no doubt grates on Hierro, an imperious centre-back in his playing days, mostly with Real Madrid.

"That's not the way forward, that's what I've told my players," he said about the team's defensive record. "They are mature professionals and they understand."

There have been individual errors -- Ramos in particular had a rough night and bore some responsibility for both goals -- as well as more team-wide breakdowns. Goalkeeper David De Gea seems to be encountering a slump at the worst possible time. And on the night, Morocco might have easily scored more than the two goals they put on the scoreboard.

Hierro wouldn't be drawn into the root cause of the breakdowns, only acknowledging that more work needed to be done.

"This is not going to stop here," he said. "We need to continue working, and as of tomorrow we need to start the process of in-depth analysis of the match against Russia."

Solving his team's defensive issues will likely determine just how far Spain goes in this World Cup. But for now, Hierro is pushing enough of the right buttons to get his team into the knockout rounds. Given the chaos that reigned at the start of the tournament, that's no small feat.

Now the hard part that is the World Cup knockout stages begins.