The last time Uruguay won all four of their Fifa World Cup opening games, they went on to lift the title in 1930. The last time they had managed to shut out all their opponents in the group stages, they reached the semi-finals in 2010.
The signs are definitely positive for Oscar Tabarez’s men and, against the European champions Portugal, Los Charruas showed why they were considered such a threat to the more fancied teams in the competition.
The South Americans won 2-1 but, in reality, they hadn’t been exposed to the goal threats that they will face from tougher opposition, as Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez stood tall and snuffed out attack after attack.
Portugal were the clear underdogs heading into this match, primarily due to Uruguay’s defensive strength. Fernando Santos acknowledged this by blinking first. He brought in the offence-minded Ricardo Pereira for Cedric Soares at right-back and Bernardo Silva on the right wing.
Pattern to the play
This was meant to create an overload on the right for Pereira and Silva to exploit, and try and bring the deep-sitting William Carvalho and Adrien Silva into the game. A closer look at the highlights reveal a pattern to the play – low fizzed balls into the box from the right for Portugal players to run into and get a touch that would take it past Fernando Muslera.
Santos and Portugal had to resort to this to avoid being nullified by Uruguay’s aerial prowess but the strategy fell flat owing to two primary factors. One, Edinson Cavani was majestic, not just in taking the chances that fell his way but also in pressing Portugal on their left side, a clear sign that Tabarez had spotted Portugal’s game plan. More on Cavani later.
Diego Laxalt’s pace at right-back was enough to goad Joao Mario into shifting to the left, thereby attempting to switch the flank of play. With Goncalo Guedes and Cristiano Ronaldo already looking to take advantage of the switch, the attack lost its shape. The congestion on the left created a situation where Raphael Guerreiro was forced to lump crosses into the box. For Tabarez and Uruguay, this was mission accomplished.
As a strike pairing, Cavani and Luis Suarez were superb. They defended from the front, and Pepe’s mistake for the eventual winner came from this offensive press. The duo started the tournament slowly, with Suarez missing a hatful of chances, mostly provided by Cavani, against Egypt that he otherwise would have gobbled up.
As the World Cup has progressed, Suarez and Cavani have dropped deeper and the understanding that both have of each other’s strengths has played a big part in their offensive prowess. In Sochi, it was Suarez playing Cavani into dangerous situations, where the big PSG forward had the time and space to finish.
The first goal came about as a result of them stretching the play beyond Portugal’s full-backs, creating a fissure in the middle. Cavani switched the play from the right to the left, where Luisito knew exactly what to do. He waited and waited, till Cavani casually ghosted in behind Pereira and Jose Fonte before delivering a cross to the far post, from where the former Napoli frontman headed the ball home.
There were clamours for them to play closer to each other after the first game but when you have two strikers with a connection such as theirs, both could roam apart and still manage to destroy defences with their link-up play. The two men, born in Salto three weeks apart, with the likes of Rodrigo Bentancur supporting them, have ensured that Uruguay have as much firepower in attack as any other team left in the competition.
For a change, the spotlight was on Cavani and the big man thrived on it, a Henry-esque finish for the second goal being the highlight of the game. His injury and subsequent withdrawal will have Uruguay’s fitness staff sweating over his participation against France.
Another player who didn’t start the first two games but has become absolutely pivotal to the Uruguayan cause is Lucas Torreira. The pint-sized dynamo was a warrior in front of the defence, giving Cristiano Ronaldo a feeling that he was being strangulated by the constant marking.
The Real Madrid superstar was completely shackled as he could do nothing but drop deep in order to get a hold of the ball. Torreira exemplifies his country’s footballing culture, tiny but with a huge amount of heart and fight.
Numerous interceptions and ball recoveries later, his presence at the base of defence has been the factor for Bentancur and Matias Vecino in front of him playing to their strengths while going forward. If the reports of him heading to Arsenal are true, the Gunners are finally getting the steel that they have craved for years.
Organisation vs talent
France will have their hands full with this lot in the quarter-finals. Didier Deschamps’s team have blown hot and cold but cannot afford to do so against Uruguay, the toughest opponent they will have faced so far.
Laxalt versus Kylian Mbappe should be the duel to watch, a pacy attacker against an equally fast full-back. Given that France’s midfield hasn’t been up to scratch, Torreira could give Paul Pogba and Co a torrid time.
Most importantly, Suarez will be hoping for his strike partner’s recovery. Cavani’s contribution to the cause goes much beyond his goals and there are not many who will run as hard as the Ligue 1 Golden Boot winner.
More importantly, the defence has conceded its first goal of 2018, and Tabarez will appreciate the reality check to the Iron Wall. For all of France’s talent, this lot look hungrier and disciplined. In the quarter-finals, it will be El Maestro Tabarez versus France’s ‘Big Sam’ Deschamps, a battle of organisation versus an accumulation of glittering talent.
Add the rugged spirit of La Garra Charrua and no one will have an edge going into this massive quarter-final clash.