Uruguay relies on savvy, smarts to reach World Cup quarters
SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Uruguay has gone deep into the World Cup before, even with some of the same players, yet after four straight wins, it’s clear there is something more to the group that Oscar Tabarez has brought to Russia.
Perhaps even enough to give France fits in the quarterfinals.
Uruguay earned its date with the star-filled French by ousting Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal 2-1 in the round of 16, the first true test of the tournament for Uruguay after La Celeste cruised through the group stage by dispatching Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia without allowing a goal.
In defeating the reigning European champions, Uruguay reinforced it’s a team that’s deeper than Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. The Uruguayans are an elite defensive group, with a midfield that dominated Portugal and never allowed Ronaldo to take over like he has so many times before.
“The whole team sacrificed so we could get the win,” Suarez said.
What stood out Saturday against Portugal was Uruguay’s comfort without the ball. Portugal had 61 percent of the possession, yet its only goal came off a set piece. During the run of play, Portugal rarely got any clear looks at goal. Portugal’s possession advantage was meaningless because it couldn’t break down the Uruguayan defense.
Uruguay had eight blocked shot attempts after having just five in the first three games combined. There was a commitment to playing defense beyond just the back line led by captain Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez. The midfield foursome of Rodrigo Bentancur, Lucas Torreira, Diego Laxalt and Matias Vecino was constantly working back to help. And when Uruguay got its chance to counter, it was deadly with the combo of Suarez and Cavani.
“There is very often this mistaken assumption that ball possession leads to scoring opportunities, but that is not the case. I learned that in Italy when I was working there,” said Tabarez, who coached at Cagliari and briefly AC Milan in the 1990s.
“Even if you don’t have much ball possession,” he added, “you can still inflict pain on the opponent in different ways.”
The lingering question all week for Uruguay will be the health of Cavani after he scored two goals but limped off in the 70th minute with a leg injury. Cavani said he felt a pain and couldn’t continue, but was hopeful he could recover in time to be on the field against France.
Cavani has three goals in this tournament and had 28 goals this past season for Paris Saint-Germain in league play, with another seven in Champions League matches. His pairing with Suarez at the top of Uruguay’s attack is critical in relieving pressure and countering with how much Uruguay is willing to play defense.
“At this stage of the tournament I think you need a perfect game to be able to advance,” Suarez said after the South Americans vanquished Portugal. “I think what we did best today was to help the team. Obviously I’m very happy for (Cavani’s) goals and that they helped us win. I think the whole group has been working well.”
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