Nizhniy Novgorod, Russian Federation, Jul 3 – Streetwise and tough yet with a razor-sharp edge, Uruguay have moved serenely into the World Cup quarter-finals, side-stepping the chaos that has swamped former winners Argentina, Germany and Spain.
Uruguay have shown in Russia they are extremely difficult to beat yet sometimes underwhelming — factors you could have predicted from them before the World Cup.
A low-key start and an 89th-minute winner that gave them a forgettable 1-0 win over an Egypt side missing Mohamed Salah has now given way to real hope they can win their third World Cup.
With a defence built around the central pairing of Jose Gimenez and the vastly experienced 32-year-old Diego Godin — they also play together at Atletico Madrid — Uruguay have won all four games in Russia, conceding a solitary goal.
They are also the only side to have beaten Russia, overwhelming them 3-0 in the group stage in what appeared to be a reality check for the host nation before they want on to stun Spain in the last 16.
Uruguay extinguished Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal on a thrilling night in Sochi to reach the quarter-finals, with Edinson Cavani scoring two brilliant goals.
Next up the grizzly, experienced World Cup campaigners take on a young France — including the exciting Kylian Mbappe and Atletico’s Antoine Griezmann — in Nizhny Novgorod on Friday, bidding for a place in the semi-finals.
It is a tough assignment for France and any hope that their stars will enjoy the same space they found in their 4-3 win against a disorganised Argentina have already been extinguished.
“France’s strongest points are the attackers, Griezmann and Mbappe,” Uruguay’s veteran coach Oscar Tabarez said in his understated yet determined way after the Portugal victory.
“If you let France have space it will be very difficult.”
“El Maestro” Tabarez has been in charge of Uruguay for 12 years and has not only forged a strong team who rarely fail to deliver on the big stage, but also a side with an immense work ethic and huge experience.
At this World Cup, goalkeeper Fernando Muslera and star striker Luis Suarez both collected their 100th caps.
The main doubt for France is Cavani, who has a calf muscle injury that forced him off against Portugal. He did not train on Tuesday.
Cavani has played 105 times for his country. If he has not recovered in time, he could replaced by Cristhian Stuani, who has played 42 times for Uruguay, just 16 fewer than Griezmann has appeared for France.
And they are marshalled by Godin, currently 121 caps and counting.
“We always think about not letting our opponent play, that’s one of the things that bothers them,” midfielder Diego Laxalt told AFP.
“We try to make sure that strikers don’t feel comfortable, it’s a good option.”
– Turning over new leaf –
But in this topsy-turvy World Cup, one thing for Uruguay has notably changed.
Surprisingly, the team that have received the fewest yellow cards in Russia — just one — are Uruguay, known in the past to resort to the dark arts to win.
At the last World Cup, Luis Suarez was involved in a notorious biting scandal and as back in 1986 Uruguay were labelled “liars and cheaters” by Alex Ferguson after a bad-tempered match against Scotland. This time, only Rodrigo Bentancur has been booked.
It is a remarkable transformation.
They have five fewer yellow cards than France and it is the Europeans who have to reshuffle because of a suspension to Blaise Matuidi.
“In reality, I think Uruguay has been a strong, aggressive opponent, but without any bad intention towards the opponent,” said Suarez on Tuesday, adding that they should be proud of their disciplinary record in Russia.
Uruguay also have a reputation as World Cup party poopers — including Ghana in 2010 — and history is on their side.
The two nations have met three times in the World Cup and Uruguay have not lost once.