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Uruguay turning to veterans against Saudi Arabia

June 18, 2018
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Uruguay head coach Oscar Tabarez listens to a question during a press conference on the eve of the group A match between Egypt and Uruguay at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Yekaterinburg Arena in Yekaterinburg, Russia, Thursday, June 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (AP) — Not everything has gone according to plan for Uruguay and coach Oscar Tabarez.

They had to fight harder than expected for a 1-0 win in their World Cup opener against an Egypt squad missing star Mohamed Salah. It took 13 attempts before Jose Gimenez’s last-gasp header.

The Celeste travel south to meet bottom-ranked Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, hoping to put their off-target form behind them by deploying a trusted midfield behind strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.

Tabarez is poised to hand starting places to veteran opening-game substitutes Carlos Sanchez and Cristian Rodriguez.

With the reputation of being a midfield hardman, the 32-year-old Rodriguez — whose nickname “The Onion” was passed on from his father — has appeared for his country more than 100 times. He played at Paris Saint-Germain, Benfica, Porto and Atletico Madrid before returning home to top-flight Penarol.

“What’s important is that we won our opening game ... and that we win the next one,” Rodriguez said.

An avid horse rider and kickboxer, he is proudly old-school and views video review as an enemy of spontaneity.

“Personally, I don’t like VAR because the Uruguayan — well, Latin American — style relies on being fast-footed,” Rodriguez said. “It doesn’t help us. It does help referees, though, especially when there are serious fouls.”

The two-time champions are aware of the Russian tournament’s potential for upsets

“This is a very balanced World Cup,” Rodriguez said. “Nobody really expected results like the ones with from Argentina and Brazil.”

Those perennial contenders were held to draws in their opening games.

UPSET SPECIAL

Another surprise came in Uruguay’s Group A, when Russia shook off a shaky recent record to thrash Saudi Arabia 5-0 in Moscow.

The game, attended by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin-Salman, forced the Saudi team and coach Juan Antonio Pizzi into damage control. The Saudi federation has gone through three national team coaches in the past year. Its vice president, Nawaf Al-Tamayat, publicly scolded players’ “confusion and distractedness” and described the loss as being beyond “an honorable level.”

The Green Falcons didn’t win a single game in their previous three World Cups, unable to reproduce their success in the reaching the last 16 in 1994.

The humiliation by Russia may force Pizzi to abandon his ambitions of fielding an attack-minded team for a more conservative lineup.

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More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

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Follow Derek Gatopoulos at https://twitter.com/dgatopoulos

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