Paul Pogba received the ball in space, and set about running towards the Uruguayan goal. France’s powerful midfielder had been in excellent form, and France were cruising towards the semi-finals of the World Cup against a Uruguayan team that hadn’t really tested them all game. In Pogba’s path stood Uruguayan centre-back José María Giménez. Pogba attempted to neatly skip past him, and Giménez stuck out a leg. As the foul was paid, Giménez looked as if he was about to burst into tears. As the free-kick was taken, he did. There was still time left, but a miraculous Uruguayan comeback seemed impossible. As it turned out, it was impossible.
Uruguay were in trouble before the first kick of the ball. Edinson Cavani, the star of their round of 16 win over Portugal, succumbed to a calf injury accrued during his man-of-the-match performance, and he was replaced by Cristhian Stuani. Stuani is a capable player, but the change was akin to replacing a brand-new Ferrari with a banged-up Holden. He tried his best, but Uruguay’s attack was lacking in almost every department. Cavani’s hard work in transition was lost, and without him Uruguay were fighting a losing battle.Embed from Getty Images
Cristhian Stuani (left) and Lucas Hernández battle for the ball. Stuani came in for the injured Edinson Cavani, and although he fought hard he couldn’t make up for the loss of Uruguay’s star striker.
It didn’t necessarily seem that way in the opening exchanges, as France looked nervous and made a number of early errors as a result. Balls were awkwardly controlled under little to no pressure, passes were missed and occasionally even hit straight into pursuing players. With Cavani around, Uruguay may have taken advantage. Without him, they couldn’t even turn France’s nerves into a clear-cut chance. France settled and began to control the early possession, but neither side was creating too many chances despite the openness of the contest.
Then, just as the sides were approaching half time, France took the lead. Four years earlier, in the quarter-finals against Germany, French centre-back Raphaël Varane was beaten in the air by Mats Hummels as France conceded the goal that eliminated them from the World Cup. Now Varane received a chance for redemption when Antoine Griezmann’s well-choreographed free-kick found him in the box. He was unmarked, and he got his head on the ball, but the chance was still a tough one. He converted it expertly, diverting a glancing header into the bottom corner and leaving Fernando Muslera helpless to intervene.
Uruguay reacted well after going behind, and they had an almost identical chance to Varane’s minutes after going behind. Martín Cáceres got his head on a free-kick, and diverted it into the bottom corner. It seemed destined to level the scores as it flew towards the bottom corner. Then Hugo Lloris got in the way. The French captain dived full length, stuck out a hand and parried it away, before Diego Godín blasted the rebound wide of the target from close range. Thanks to Lloris, and Godín’s remarkable miss, France survived. After the break, Uruguay kept pushing, but there was always something missing in their attacks. Then a goalkeeping error put France two goals up, and Uruguay never recovered.Embed from Getty Images
Fernando Muslera watches helplessly as his poor attempt at a save loops past him into the back of the net. Muslera’s mistake consigned Uruguay to elimination, and all but confirmed France’s passage to the semi-finals.
It wasn’t Muslera’s first mistake. Shortly after half time, the goalkeeper was caught in possession in his own box, and Griezmann nearly capitalised. It was Griezmann who benefitted from his next error a few minutes later. The goal started with Pogba, who strolled easily past Uruguay’s midfield and reached the edge of the box almost unopposed. He shuffled the ball to Corentin Tolisso, who was in space, and Tolisso moved the ball on to Griezmann. Griezmann took a seemingly harmless shot, directed straight at Muslera. Then it swerved. It didn’t move much, but it was enough to leave Muslera in an awkward position as he looked to make the save. His clumsy two handed bat at the ball didn’t work, and the ball looped over the goal line.
After going 2-0 up, the French finished the game off well, with a bizarre clash between Kylian Mbappé and Cristian Rodríguez the only hitch. It wasn’t exactly clear what had taken place, but high tempers ensued as Mbappé ran into Rodríguez, went to ground and drew the ire of Uruguay’s players. Confusingly, both players ended up booked, with Néstor Pitana seemingly cautioning Rodríguez for the indiscretion and Mbappé for simulation at the same time. The French calmed down and potential suspensions were narrowly averted, and with Uruguay’s attack looking increasingly toothless as the game wore on the French never looked threatened. It was a calm, composed performance, and it bodes well for France as they enter the business end of the tournament.
Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
France 2 (Varane 40, Griezmann 61)
Referee: Néstor Pitana (Arg)
Uruguay (4-4-2): Muslera – Cáceres, Giménez, Godín, Laxalt; Nández (Urretaviscaya 73), Torreira, Vecino, Bentancur (Rodríguez 59); Suárez, Stuani (Gómez 59).
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba, Kanté; Mbappé (Dembélé 88), Griezmann (Fekir 90+3), Tolisso (N’Zonzi 80); Giroud.
1. N’Golo Kanté (France)
Kanté is far from the most talented player on France’s team. He’s not particularly quick, he’s not particularly strong, and he can’t really contribute to the attack from his position in holding midfield. He is also France’s most important player. His superhuman endurance and brilliant reading of the play cut out a number of Uruguayan attacks, and he dominated the midfield.
2. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba had a massive impact playing alongside Kanté, contributing to attacks with his robust runs from the centre of the park and playing a key role in their most dangerous offensive forays. He was everywhere, and his combination with Kanté is a huge part of France’s success. He was nearly suspended for an off-the-ball incident, and France will be thankful for his lucky escape.
3. Antoine Griezmann (France)
Griezmann just kept popping up in dangerous positions, and eventually he got his reward with a fairly lucky goal. He also provided the assist for Varane’s opener, and his ability to find space and use the ball effectively made a big difference for the French as they looked to break down Uruguay’s strong defence.
4. Olivier Giroud (France)
If there’s one man that can be credited with France’s rebound from a slow start to this tournament, it’s Giroud. He came in after an underwhelming first up performance and has delivered in every match, tying the team together with his strong play up front and striking up a devastating combination with Griezmann. He hasn’t really looked like scoring, but he plays a massive role.
5. Martín Cáceres (Uruguay)
Cáceres was one of few bright lights in an otherwise poor Uruguayan display, as he worked tirelessly shuffling up and down the right wing and made contributions in both attack and defence. He came closest to scoring for Uruguay with a brilliant header, and he was their best player by some distance.