Luis Suárez was hacked down in the middle of the field, and Uruguay tried to catch the Saudi Arabian defence out with a quick free-kick. It worked, to a point. Edinson Cavani slipped into space, and glided to the edge of the box. Then, with nothing else to do, he stopped. No Uruguayan player had joined him on the counter-attack. If there was one moment in this match which summed up Uruguay’s lack of commitment to free-flowing play, this was it. Suárez gave them a one-goal lead midway through the first half, and they kept it until the final whistle. It wasn’t pretty, and for large periods it was turgid, but Uruguay didn’t seem to care as they sealed their spot in the round of 16 with an unspectacular but solid victory.Embed from Getty Images
Luis Suárez celebrates after scoring the only goal of the game. The goal could have been the first of many, but Uruguay were too comfortable in their lead to really push for more.
Things could have been a lot worse for the Saudis. Their tournament opener against the Russians was an unmitigated disaster, and it was all bad news following their 5-0 defeat. Players were being promised “consequences” for their poor performances, Juan Antonio Pizzi looked set for the sack and, to cap it all off, their aeroplane caught fire on their way to Rostov-on-Don. Against an experienced Uruguayan side complete with two brilliant strikers in Suárez and Cavani, a bloodbath was not out of the question. It may well have happened, too, had Uruguay understood their part in it all. Unlike Russia, they didn’t attempt to press the Green Falcons, instead allowing them to play the ball around and settle into the game. For their part, Saudi Arabia seemed so happy not to be blown away that they gratefully knocked the ball around without really trying to breach the Uruguayan defence. Then Uruguay hit the front, and began to drain the life out of the contest.
The goal came from a corner, and a goalkeeping error. Carlos Sánchez swung the ball into the box, unsuccessfully hunting out Diego Godín’s leap at the front post. Unfortunately for Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Al-Owais missed it as well. The keeper launched himself at the ball and took a wild flail, and his failure to connect left everyone exposed. With no-one having impeded its progress, the ball fell straight at the feet of an unmarked Suárez, who had no troubles finding the back of a very open net. Suárez has scored plenty of goals in a remarkable career, but he won’t have scored many that were more straightforward.Embed from Getty Images
Osama Hawsawi (right) slides in to thwart Edinson Cavani. Hawsawi played a very solid game in the heart of a sterner Saudi defensive unit.
Saudi Arabia continued to push after going behind, finding the space and time they needed to string some passes together and even starting to create some chances. Hattan Bahebri had a couple of opportunities to equalise, at one point latching on to Yasser Al-Shehrani’s ball into the box but blasting it over the bar. Leading the line, Fahad Al-Muwallad showed some pace, and threatened to cause serious issues for the Uruguayan defence. He never really made good on his threat. The Saudis weren’t being pressed into mistakes high up the field, but they were met at every turn by a solid Uruguayan side content to sit back in the confidence that they could handle anything thrown at them.
As the second half drew on, Uruguay continued their approach, resulting in a dull game which just continued to get duller. At least the Uruguayans had some chances, with Sánchez continuing to fight and Cavani improving to bring a touch of class to Uruguay’s attacks. He had some great chances, wrong-footing Al-Owais after heading Lucas Torreira’s mishit shot towards the opposite corner and beating three Saudi defenders to create something out of nothing, but he couldn’t find the back of the net. It wasn’t costly, as Saudi Arabia played like they were simply relieved not to be blown away and continued to mount tentative attacks devoid of urgency. In the 93rd minute, Uruguay managed to win themselves a corner. With Saudi Arabia presenting no real threat, they could have tried for a goal and sent it into the box. They didn’t, happy to play it short, stop their opposition from receiving the ball and generally do whatever it took to get the win. They got the win, and that’s all that really mattered for them.
Rostov-on-Don – Rostov Arena
Uruguay 1 (Suárez 23)
Saudi Arabia 0
Referee: Clément Turpin (Fra)
Uruguay (4-4-2): Muslera – Varela, Giménez, Godín, Cáceres; Sánchez (Nández 82), Vecino (Torreira 59), Bentancur, Rodríguez (Laxalt 59); Suárez, Cavani.
Saudi Arabia (4-5-1): Al-Owais – Al-Breik, Osama Hawsawi, Al-Bulaihi, Al-Shehrani; Bahebri (Kanno 75), Al-Faraj, Otayf, Al-Jassim (Al-Mogahwi 44), Al-Dawsari; Al-Muwallad (Al-Sahlawi 78).
1. Carlos Sánchez (Uruguay)
Sánchez was one of the few Uruguayan players who presented a threat going forward, and his hard work down the right flank had a big impact on Uruguay’s play. He provided the assist for Suárez’s goal, and made his presence felt until his substitution late in the piece.
2. Osama Hawsawi (Saudi Arabia)
With a more solid defensive structure around him Hawsawi was able to thrive, making some key stops and denying Uruguay with some athletic pieces of defensive work. He made his presence felt against Uruguay’s very dangerous strike pairing, and he combined well with club teammate Al-Bulaihi.
3. Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Cavani played an active role in the first half as a conduit between the midfield and the attack, but it was his second half effort which caught the eye. Playing a more advanced role, he started to work his way into pockets of space in the Saudi half and added a touch of class to Uruguay’s attacking play. There’s room for improvement, but he looks in decent touch.
4. Ali Al-Bulaihi (Saudi Arabia)
Al-Bulaihi came into the team after the catastrophe of the tournament opener, and he immediately provided the solidity in central defence that the man he replaced, Omar Hawsawi, lacked. He made a number of good challenges on Suárez and Cavani, and seemed to cause some frustration for the Uruguayans.
5. Luis Suárez (Uruguay)
The fact that Suárez had, by his lofty standards, a quiet game but still managed to find the back of the net speaks volumes for his ability to get himself on the scoresheet. The goal was by no means a difficult one to convert, but his positioning was as dangerous as ever and he showed some evidence of his footballing smarts.