2018 FIFA World Cup Review

It’s all over. A brilliant World Cup filled with excitement has ended with France taking their second World Cup title as many of football’s traditional giants crashed out earlier than expected. A semi-final line-up without Germany, Brazil, Spain and Argentina was certainly unexpected, but the teams that came through in their place delivered plenty of excitement and some quality performances. England looked a rejuvenated side under Gareth Southgate, and Belgium’s best ever side looked very dangerous on their way to the final four. Croatia had a dream run through to the final, showing resolve, skill and plenty of verve as they slugged it out with the consistent French in the tournament’s decider. It was a tournament full of excitement, and plenty of good memories will come from it. This review will take a look at the tournament, with the players and teams that impressed and the teams whose campaigns fell flat.

Best Team: France

It’s not often that a team wins the trophy as comfortably as the French did. They only trailed their opponents at one point during the tournament, with Argentina leading them 2-1 for less than 10 minutes. France then scored three goals in about 10 minutes, and that finished the Argentinians off. Everyone played well, with scarily young players standing tall (19-year-old winger Kylian Mbappé was particularly impressive) and all of France’s proven performers delivering when they needed to. They scored first in every game they played, and they breezed past some very dangerous opponents on their way to the title.

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France celebrate after their World Cup final win over Croatia. The French were comfortably the best side at the tournament, and their march to the trophy was as comfortable as it gets.

Best Fairytale: Croatia

There wasn’t a clear cut fairytale side at this tournament, but there was no shortage of contenders. England, with their young talents and newfound enthusiasm, made it further than any English side in 28 years and captivated a nation in the process. Russia, with the public just hoping the hosts didn’t embarrass themselves, made it all the way to the quarter-finals and knocked out Spain along the way. Sweden made a quarter-final despite having little more than a good system and exemplary team spirit, and Japan defied expectations to nearly make the last eight in spite of a managerial change just two months out from the tournament. In the end, though, Croatia’s journey was more impressive. They had skill, but they needed all of their resilience to go the distance against Denmark, Russia and England, and the 4-2 scoreline of the final didn’t really do them justice. They fought right to the end, and they put in some remarkable efforts along the way.

Biggest Disappointment: Germany

There were plenty of sides who disappointed at this tournament. Portugal and Argentina, despite being powered by two of the world’s biggest stars in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, just scraped through to the round of 16 and found themselves exiting early. Spain were thrust into turmoil days out from the tournament when they sacked Julen Lopetegui, and they failed to fire amidst reports of division in the squad. Brazil were ominously solid in their first four games, but it all fell apart against the determined Belgians in the quarter-finals. In the end, however, all of these teams at least made the knockout stage. Germany didn’t. They looked uninterested and a shadow of the team which won the World Cup four years before, and they never really recovered from a shock opening defeat to Mexico. Their limp exit will have huge ramifications, as the Germans search for the reasons behind their dismal showing.

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South Korea’s players celebrate after upsetting Germany and eliminating them from the World Cup. Germany’s poor performance was unexpected, and it will have ramifications for the future.

Unluckiest Team: Morocco

There were plenty of teams who could be considered unlucky not to go further in this World Cup. Peru looked brilliant against Denmark, held their own against eventual champions France and beat Australia comfortably, and yet they couldn’t pass the group stage. In Group H, Senegal fell foul of the new fair play tiebreaker, thus squandering their chance to become the only African team to make it through. It was another African team, however, who were completely luckless. Morocco were the better team in all of their three games, but the Atlas Lions finished with just one point to show for it. They never took a backwards step, but a 95th minute own goal against Iran (who were also hard-done-by in the end) and a 1-0 loss to Portugal sealed their fate before the final game had been played. They were one of a few unlucky African sides, as none of the five CAF nations made it past the group stage.

Team of the Tournament

Picking the best combined team of the tournament was a difficult task. There were plenty of players who put in strong performances throughout the tournament, with plenty of attackers proving very difficult to separate. The team is picked in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and France’s dominance is reflected in the selection of six of their players in the side.

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Thibaut Courtois makes a diving save during Belgium’s quarter-final win over Brazil. Courtois won the golden glove for his performances as Belgium progressed to the semi-finals.

Goalkeeper: Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Courtois is a classy player. It’s not often a goalkeeper can be described in such terms, but Courtois is no regular goalkeeper. His unflustered air allows him to move with incredible grace, and his extraordinary reach allows him to make difficult saves look incredibly easy. In the end, he was the best of the goalkeepers who featured in the tournament’s final stages, and although Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa and Denmark’s Kasper Schmeichel had brilliant tournaments neither of their sides made it far enough to warrant their selection.
Honourable mentions: Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico) and Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)

Right-back: Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
There were two standout right-backs at this tournament, with Meunier playing some brilliant football on Belgium’s right-flank and Kieran Trippier performing a similar role for England with plenty of skill. The two shone at all stages of the tournament, with Trippier’s set piece delivery becoming an integral part of England’s game plan and Meunier’s crosses from the right causing plenty of issues for opposing defences, but in the end the third-place play-off between the teams decided the selection issue in Meunier’s favour. Fresh after missing the semi-final against France (his loss was a massive one) Meunier scored a goal against the English and showcased his attacking and defensive qualities in a brilliant performance.
Honourable mention: Kieran Trippier (England)

Centre-backs: Raphaël Varane (France) and Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)
Much like the French, Varane got better as the tournament progressed, and he had a big hand in their success with his aerial strength and his ability to match the world’s top strikers. He even provided a threat at the other end, scoring a couple of very nice goals. Granqvist was even more important for Sweden. He picked up a couple of goals from the penalty spot, and he used his imposing physique to good effect in some dominant defensive performances, and he thoroughly deserves his spot in this side. Others could have easily won a spot, with Diego Godín holding Uruguay’s defence together and Swiss young gun Manuel Akanji playing with a composure that belied his lack of international experience, but neither were quite able to get a spot.
Honourable mentions: Diego Godín (Uruguay) and Manuel Akanji (Switzerland)

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Andreas Granqvist celebrates after scoring Sweden’s first goal against South Korea. Granqvist was the main man in Sweden’s defence, and he was the key reason for their success.

Left-back: Lucas Hernández (France)
Of all the positions, left-back was one of the hardest to pick due to a lack of strongly performing players in the position. Hernández, however, was consistent throughout and gave France plenty with his excellent all-round performances. He was able to push forward when required and he swung in some dangerous crosses, but his defensive work stood out. He was composed under pressure, displaying an ability to cleverly draw fouls when France were in need of a breather. He had no real competition, and deserves a spot in this team.
Honourable mention: Yūto Nagatomo (Japan)

Central midfielders: Paul Pogba (France) and N’Golo Kanté (France)
Pogba and Kanté’s brilliant midfield performances ensured both men basically picked themselves, and there wasn’t anyone who really came close to dislodging either. Kanté was brilliant despite an underwhelming effort in the final, and no other holding midfielder was able to exact his level of influence on matches. Alongside Pogba, who pushed forward well and managed to score a key goal in the final, Kanté led the best midfield duo in the tournament – by some distance. Paulinho was good for Brazil, and some, like Ivan Rakitić and Aleksandr Golovin, showed some skills, but Pogba and Kanté’s consistency was unmatched.
Honourable mentions: Paulinho (Brazil), Aleksandr Golovin (Russia) and Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)

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N’Golo Kanté (left) and Paul Pogba (centre) chase Belgian captain Eden Hazard during France’s semi-final win. Kanté and Pogba complemented each other perfectly, and their efforts were a key part of France’s success.

Right-wing: Kylian Mbappé (France)
Mbappé was so good that he was the only possible winner of the award for best young player of the tournament, and he announced himself on the world stage with some breathtaking efforts. In two short bursts he brought Argentina to their knees, and he consistently made opposing defences nervous with his unbelievable pace and well-honed skills. He seemingly has it all, and his brilliant efforts allowed him to win a place in the team over all-action Croatian winger Ante Rebić. He already is a star, and at 19 it’s scary how good a player he could become.
Honourable mention: Ante Rebić (Croatia)

Attacking midfielder: Luka Modrić (Croatia, captain)
Modrić was a deserving winner of the golden ball for the tournament’s best player as he led Croatia to the final with his typically dependable performances. When he is in the zone, he can take a game by the scruff of the neck without anyone realising it, and his exceptional vision allowed Croatia’s talented attackers to thrive. Philippe Coutinho was brilliant in Brazil’s run to the last eight, but he was no match for Croatia’s captain and midfield star.
Honourable mention: Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)

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Luka Modrić (left) battles for the ball with Kylian Mbappé during the World Cup final. Modrić’s efforts in taking Croatia to the final earned him the golden ball, while Mbappé was the tournament’s best young player and burst onto the scene with some dynamic performances.

Left-wing: Antoine Griezmann (France)
There were plenty of dangerous wingers who could accompany Mbappé, with Belgium’s Eden Hazard playing well throughout, Russian winger Denis Cheryshev bursting onto the scene with some great performances and Croatia’s Ivan Perišić delivering massive efforts in the semi-finals and the final. In the end, however, the berth went to Griezmann. Griezmann didn’t actually play on the left-wing, instead starting centrally and drifting wherever he want, but he had a massive impact and he was simply too good to leave out.
Honourable mentions: Eden Hazard (Belgium), Denis Cheryshev (Russia) and Ivan Perišić (Croatia)

Centre-forward: Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Cavani scored three goals in four matches at the tournament, sending Uruguay into the quarter-finals with two sublime goals against Portugal and then missing the match with a calf injury. The impact his loss had on Uruguay’s play showed just how important his hard work in both defence and attack was, and makes him a deserving leader of the line over the more prolific but less influential Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane. His effort was remarkable, and he brought plenty of class to Uruguay’s attack.
Honourable mention: Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)

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Portugal, and Ronaldo, bow out against Cavani’s brilliant double

Ricardo Quaresma attempted to dance around Christian Stuani on the right wing. Portugal were desperately chasing a late equaliser against a determined Uruguayan defence, and their World Cup future was on the line. Eventually, Quaresma decided he couldn’t really get past Stuani. Instead, he jumped over him, intent on gaming the referee and winning a free-kick in a dangerous position. César Ramos was not fooled, the ball went out for a goal-kick, and Portugal reacted indignantly. Cristiano Ronaldo, their captain, undisputed star player and main goal scorer, led the protests. He ran towards Ramos, got in his face, and received a yellow card for his troubles. Even if Portugal had managed to equalise in the final moments, and even if they had made it through to the quarter-finals, Ronaldo would have been suspended. It wasn’t really fitting that what was potentially Ronaldo’s final act at a World Cup involved a disciplinary indiscretion.

The game was always likely to be an interesting one, with both sides fielding solid defences and dangerous attacks headlined by world-class talent (Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani for Uruguay, Ronaldo for Portugal). It was Suárez and Cavani who struck first. Cavani started it, receiving the ball on the right wing and switching it across Portugal’s back four to pick out Suárez on the left. Having received the truly remarkable pass, Suárez cut back onto his right foot, as if preparing to shoot. His cross almost looked like a shot as it flew towards the back post. Then Cavani got on the end of it. If Portugal thought Cavani had played his part after his brilliant cross-field ball, they were wrong. The Uruguayan striker put in an immense effort to complete a brilliant cross-field one-two which broke down Portugal’s defence. The finish, a header from close range, was the easy part.

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César Ramos (right) shows Cristiano Ronaldo a yellow card for dissent. Ronaldo lost his cool in the final moments of Portugal’s defeat, culminating in his second booking of the tournament.

Now chasing the game, Portugal controlled possession and territory but never really looked capable of breaching Uruguay’s solid and very determined defence. Ronaldo had a shot blocked. Gonçalo Guedes had a shot blocked. William Carvalho tried a long shot. It was blocked. Crosses were played into the box, looking for Ronaldo, but they were never quite on point and they were mostly claimed without challenge by Uruguayan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera. Occasionally, they weren’t too far off, and Diego Godín would have to head them away instead. When Uruguay went forward quickly after Portugal’s missed chances, Suárez won a free-kick and forced Rui Patrício into a tough save as he directed said free-kick under the wall. It was more dangerous than any of Portugal’s many attacks. Back up the other end, Ronaldo took a free-kick on the edge of the box. It was blocked, by the wall, and cleared away by Lucas Torreira’s bicycle kick. A succession of poor crosses and ineffective attacks later, Portugal went to half time without looking like breaking down Uruguay’s seemingly impenetrable defence.

Portugal started the second half much as they finished the first, dominating possession but failing to make much of it. Then, shortly after resumption, they scored. It all happened quite suddenly, starting with some nice build-up play and a corner emanating from Adrien Silva’s shot on the edge of the area. Silva slipped, but his shot was somehow deflected away for a corner. From the corner, they found the back of the net. It was a rare defensive lapse from Uruguay which created the opening. Raphaël Guerreiro’s cross beat Godín’s partner, José María Giménez, and Ronaldo’s big leap. Unfortunately for Uruguay, Pepe was there, and completely unmarked. He had no problems getting his head to the ball, and he had even fewer issues putting the header into the back of the net.

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Edinson Cavani celebrates after scoring one of his two goals. Both of Cavani’s goals were brilliant finishes, and they delivered Uruguay to victory.

It didn’t take long for Uruguay to take the lead again. Cavani scored the goal, beating Patrício with a classy finish and sending the Uruguayan fans into raptures. It began with a mistake. Pepe, the goal scoring hero only a few minutes earlier, bungled a defensive header, presenting Nahitan Nández with the opportunity to run at Portugal’s now stretched defence. He played a beautiful sideways pass to Cavani, who received the ball just inside the box and in plenty of space. Cavani had a few options as he approached Nández’s perfect pass. He could pick up the ball and dribble towards goal, getting himself to close range before unleashing a shot. He could have dribbled wide and put in a cross for Suárez, who was streaming through the middle. Instead, he shot first-time. He angled his run towards the ball so that he could shoot with the instep of his right foot, and he nonchalantly curled the ball past Patrício and into the opposite corner of the net. It was a truly remarkable strike, and it left Portugal needing another equaliser.

Portugal began to improve as they pursued their second goal, but they couldn’t find the elusive equaliser. Muslera made a mess of dealing with Guerreiro’s cross, but Bernardo Silva couldn’t capitalise as he blasted it over the top of an empty goal. Mexican referee Ramos decided he had fouled Muslera anyway. Their crosses became more dangerous, and they were creating shots in better positions. Uruguay didn’t seem to care. Godín won the ball in the air every time it was kicked in his direction, and Uruguay’s hard work meant that they continued to weather the storm. They threw themselves in front of shots. They were always there to challenge the Portuguese. Ronaldo attempted to intimidate his opponents with tricks and breeze straight past them. Unfazed, they just waited until his tricks had been completed and kicked the ball away contemptuously. Uruguay had an answer to everything Portugal threw at them. By the end, Portugal had nothing left to throw.

Sochi – Fisht Olympic Stadium
Uruguay 1 (Cavani 7, 62)
Portugal 1 (Pepe 55)
Referee: César Ramos (Mex)
Uruguay (4-4-2): Muslera – Cáceres, Giménez, Godín, Laxalt; Nández (Sánchez 81), Vecino, Torreira, Bentancur (Rodríguez 63); Suárez, Cavani (Stuani 74).
Portugal (4-4-2): Rui Patrício – Ricardo Pereira, Pepe, Fonte, Guerreiro; Bernardo Silva, William Carvalho, Adrien Silva (Quaresma 65), João Mário (Manuel Fernandes 85); Guedes (André Silva 74), Ronaldo.

Top 5
1. Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Cavani was in brilliant form, scoring both of Uruguay’s goals and providing a touch of class to every Uruguayan move. His finish to complete the second goal was superlative, and his hard work and effortless class allowed him to score the game’s opener. His combination with Suárez looks scary, and Uruguay will be hoping that the late niggle he picked up doesn’t hurt their campaign.
2. Diego Godín (Uruguay)
Where would Uruguay be without Diego Godín? It’s certain that they’d be nowhere near as solid. Once again, Uruguay’s captain and defensive leader was colossal, rebuffing Portugal’s attacks thanks to his height, experience and brilliant positioning. He always seemed to be exactly where Uruguay needed him, and he ensured Uruguay’s safe passage to the quarter-finals.
3. William Carvalho (Portugal)
William was in fine form, pulling the strings from deep in midfield and taking charge of all of Portugal’s attacking play. His defensive work rate was good, but it was his underrated playmaking ability which really stood out on a night where little went right for the Portuguese.
4. Lucas Torreira (Uruguay)
Torreira’s defensive effort was unbelievable, as he pushed himself to his limits with his determination to get in front of shots and keep Portugal from breaking through. He threw himself in Portugal’s way, at one point ending up on the ground after blocking a particularly powerful effort from Ronaldo. He fought very hard.
5. Bernardo Silva (Portugal)
Silva hadn’t really found form in the group stage, and he found himself dropped for Portugal’s crucial clash with Iran as a result. Restored to the starting line-up, he finally justified his selection, looking dangerous as he ran at Uruguayan defenders and putting in some incisive crosses.

Russia receive a reality check as Uruguay win effortlessly

It’s hard to pick the moment where it all fell apart. Russia came into their match against Uruguay with plenty of reason for optimism. Buoyed by their vocal home crowds, their heavily-criticised team had looked like world beaters in their first two matches, scoring eight goals, conceding just one and sealing their qualification for the round of 16 with a game to spare. Uruguay, on the other hand, hadn’t looked particularly fluent despite winning both of their opening two games and confirming their safe passage from the group alongside Russia. The Russians, with all their confidence, looked ideally placed to upset Uruguay and take out first place in the group. By half time, they had received a sobering reality check. 2-0 down, and reduced to ten men, Russia’s bubble had burst in extraordinary fashion. Where did it all go wrong?

Did it fall apart with the first goal, aided and abetted by a horrendous pass? Aleksandr Samedov’s errant ball missed its target completely, and Luis Suárez ran onto it in plenty of space. Ilya Kutepov stopped Suárez’s pass to Edinson Cavani from finding its target, but the rebound was collected by Rodrigo Bentancur on the edge of the box. Yury Gazinsky stopped Bentancur through less legal means than those Kutepov had used seconds earlier, taking his legs out, earning himself a yellow card and granting Uruguay a free-kick right on the edge of the area. Suárez made no mistake. Igor Akinfeev, expecting the ball to fly over his carefully set-up wall, was caught off-guard and flat-footed when Suárez aimed for the other side of the goal, and he couldn’t lay a hand on the ball as it slipped past him into the bottom corner. Uruguay’s opener, coming just 10 minutes in, put the Russians on the back foot, and they never really recovered.

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Diego Godín (front) competes for the ball with Artem Dzyuba. Despite being smaller than his opponent, Godín managed to shut Dzyuba down with his vast experience.

Was it the second goal, stemming from an unfortunate concoction of bad timing and bad luck, which really brought the Russian bandwagon to a screaming halt? Russia fought hard in the minutes after going behind, with giant striker Artem Dzyuba having an impact and Denis Cheryshev nearly scoring with a well-hit shot that Fernando Muslera couldn’t quite control. Diego Godín, Uruguay’s defensive rock, just stopped Cheryshev from getting the rebound. Then Uruguay doubled their advantage. Lucas Torreira’s corner was headed away, and Diego Laxalt took on an ambitious shot from well outside the area. He shouldn’t have had a prayer. Then Cheryshev, who had scored three goals in two games and been the surprise hero of Russia’s tournament, attempted to charge the shot down, and the results were disastrous. The ball ricocheted towards the bottom corner, and Akinfeev couldn’t recover in time to stop it. Cheryshev’s own goal completely derailed the Russians, and Uruguay nearly scored again minutes later when Bentancur turned the ball over in the Uruguayan attacking third. Luckily for Russia, Akinfeev saved it, and Roman Zobnin was there to stop Cavani from scoring the follow-up effort.

Was it the red card, given to Igor Smolnikov 10 minutes before the break, which really came to represent Russia’s woes? Smolnikov was only in the team as a replacement for the rested Mário Fernandes, and it’s fair to say he didn’t have his best game. He had already received a booking after clattering into Cavani, but when Laxalt started racing down the wing he slid in without any thought for the consequences. Laxalt’s legs were taken out from under him, and Malang Diedhiou had no choice but to send Smolnikov packing. The only delay came as the referee fumbled in his back pocket to locate the red card. A man down, and with their confidence already shot, the Russians were well on the road to a humbling defeat.

The second half wasn’t particularly exciting, but there were moments which represented Russia’s slide. There was Dzyuba’s poor effort after some woeful Uruguayan passing in the defensive third gave them an opening. There was Kutepov’s muffed clearance, which flew out of bounds barely five metres away from where he’d kicked it. There was Kutepov’s pinpoint pass to Cavani, with the Russian centre-back splitting the middle of two of his teammates to gift possession to Uruguay in a dangerous position. To cap it all off, Uruguay scored another with less than a minute of normal time remaining. Akinfeev parried Godín’s powerful header as the centre-back rose to meet Torreira’s corner, and was left helpless as Cavani bundled the rebound in. It said a lot for Russia’s limp defence that Suárez, looking for a second goal, was the only player competing with Cavani for the ball. As the game wound down, there was a cruel irony to be found in the fact that the Cosmos Arena, designed to pay homage to Russia’s history of space exploration, was the venue where the Russians came crashing back down to earth.

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Edinson Cavani wheels away in celebration after scoring Uruguay’s third goal late. Cavani worked hard all day, and the goal was a fitting reward for his efforts.

Samara – Cosmos Arena
Uruguay 3 (Suárez 10, Cheryshev 23 og, Cavani 90)
Russia 0
Referee: Malang Diedhiou (Sen)
Uruguay (3-5-2): Muslera – Coates, Godín, Cáceres; Nández (Rodríguez 73), Vecino, Torreira, Bentancur (de Arrascaeta 63), Laxalt; Suárez, Cavani (Gómez 90+3).
Russia (4-2-3-1): Akinfeev – Smolnikov, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Kudryashov; Gazinsky (Kuzyayev 46), Zobnin; Samedov, Aleksei Miranchuk (Smolov 60), Cheryshev (Mário Fernandes 38); Dzyuba.
Sent-off: Smolnikov 36

Top 5
1. Rodrigo Bentancur (Uruguay)
Bentancur played very well in a more advanced midfield role, working hard to challenge the Russians when they had the ball and creating opportunities with his strength and skill. He won the free-kick which led to Suárez’s goal, and he was instrumental in a few dangerous pieces of attacking play.
2. Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Cavani became increasingly determined to get himself a goal as the game went on, and his work never dropped off as a result. He got his goal in the end, tapping in a header from very close range, and it was a deserved reward for an excellent performance which heaped plenty of pressure on the Russian defence.
3. Diego Godín (Uruguay)
Godín was another Uruguayan whose effort never faltered, battling hard to repress the dangerous Dzyuba. Despite giving up a size disadvantage against the massive Russian striker he came out on top in most of their physical duels, and he even managed to play a key role in Uruguay’s final goal with the game winding down.
4. Luis Suárez (Uruguay)
Suárez scored his second goal of the tournament with a brilliantly-taken free-kick, and he was a dangerous attacking presence throughout the game. His positioning was as good as ever, and his combination with Cavani is becoming more fluent with every game.
5. Sergei Ignashevich (Russia)
In the first game where Russia’s much-questioned defence has been tested Ignashevich stood much taller than the rest. He made some excellent challenges to deny the Uruguayans, and more than justified the decision to bring him back from international retirement for this tournament.

Saudi Arabia knocked out in lifeless encounter

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.

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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.

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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).

Top 5
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.

Uruguay do it tough, but get it done

83 minutes in, Uruguay’s first match of the World Cup wasn’t going to plan. They were being held by an Egyptian side missing talismanic attacker Mohamed Salah, and their star strike pairing of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez just wasn’t quite at their best. Then, everything clicked. Suárez was holding his ground on the edge of the box, and his headed pass reached Cavani outside the area without touching the ground. The resulting volley was flawless. It was on target, but Cavani sacrificed no power in ensuring it was bound for the goal. It was perfectly directed into the top corner. As it rocketed towards the Egyptian goal, it was clear that it was the breakthrough Uruguay were looking for.

The match had started turgidly, with both sides starting cautiously and never really taking the game on. Over 20 minutes had elapsed before Suárez missed the only clear-cut chance of the half when the ball fell at his feet following a poorly-defended corner. He hit it badly, and the ball rolled harmlessly into the side netting. For their part, Egypt were fighting hard. Captain Ahmed Fathy was in top-form at right-back, and Tarek Hamed was stifling Uruguay’s young midfield with his hard work shielding the defence.

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Mohamed El-Shenawy makes a stunning save to deny Edinson Cavani late in the game. El-Shenawy made a number of excellent saves to push Uruguay right up to the final whistle.

Uruguay were ready to take the lead with Cavani’s thunderous volley. Unfortunately, no-one let Mohamed El-Shenawy know. The Egyptian goalkeeper flung himself at the ball, and acrobatically batted the chance away. It bounced over the line for a corner, and Cavani could only shake his head in disbelief. It just wasn’t Uruguay’s day. Confirmation of that thought seemed to come minutes later, when Cavani’s hard-hit free-kick smashed into the woodwork. When Carlos Sánchez inadvertently blocked a teammate’s follow-up shot, the moment was lost. Uruguay were pushing, but the gods just weren’t smiling on them.

After a very dull first half, things began to pick up in the second. A poor piece of aerial work by Ahmed Hegazi allowed Suárez and Cavani to combine, and some quick thinking by El-Shenawy was all that prevented Uruguay from taking the lead. Egypt continued to weather the storm, however, recovering from an injury to Hamed and holding firm against a Uruguayan attack that was beginning to lose its intensity. Kahraba came off the bench and provided some pace, and along with the talented Trézéguet and the hard-working Amr Warda he began to ask questions of the Uruguayan defence. Centre-backs Diego Godín and José María Giménez were up to the task, but the game had settled into a lull and it wasn’t clear where the next goal was coming from.

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José María Giménez (second from front) scores the winner in the 89th minute. The goal capped off a late surge by the Uruguayans to end Egypt’s resistance.

Then, after a sustained assault, Egypt’s resistance came to an end. It was Sánchez who provided the delivery, swinging in a free-kick from the right and picking out his centre-backs in the middle. Godín, Uruguay’s master of late goals, was poised to take the chance. Giménez didn’t allow it to happen, rising above the rest and beating his captain to the ball. This time, the perfectly placed header found its way into the bottom corner, and El-Shenawy stood rooted to the spot. On the bench, Salah was brought to tears, but his forced inactivity meant there was nothing he could do about it. Without their star, there was nothing Egypt could do about it either.

Of course, the Pharaohs continued to push for an equaliser, hoping against hope for an avenue past the unyielding Uruguayan defence. No such opening could be found, leaving Egypt to face a Russian side brimming with confidence with a heart. They fought as hard as they could, and they pushed their opponents right to the final whistle, but Giménez’s late winner may haunt them for the rest of the tournament. For Uruguay, it was far from a perfect performance. They were pretty uninspiring for most of the game. But in the end, they won, and that’s really all that counts.

Yekaterinburg – Central Stadium
Egypt 0
Uruguay 1 (Giménez 89)
Referee: Björn Kuipers (Ned)
Egypt (4-2-3-1): El-Shenawy – Fathy, Ali Gabr, Hegazi, Abdel-Shafy; Tarek Hamed (Morsy 50), Elneny; Warda (Ramadan Sobhi 82), Abdallah Said, Trézéguet; Marwan Mohsen (Kahraba 63).
Uruguay (4-4-2): Muslera – Varela, Giménez, Godín, Cáceres; Nández (Sánchez 58), Vecino (Torreira 87), Bentancur, de Arrascaeta (Rodríguez 59); Suárez, Cavani.

Top 5
1. Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Cavani ensured Uruguay were always a threat, and his class within the final third sparked Uruguay’s devastating late charge to victory. He was unlucky not to score with his thunderous volley and his near-perfect free-kick, and on another day he could have had a massive impact on the scoreline. He will only improve from here.
2. Mohamed El-Shenawy (Egypt)
El-Shenawy was something of a surprise choice over veteran Essam El-Hadary, but he more than justified his selection with the game of his life in the Egyptian goal. His save to deny Cavani in the latter stages of the match was top-class, and his anticipation in cutting off Uruguayan attacks prevented a number of goals.
3. Diego Godín (Uruguay)
Godín showed all of his experience in central defence, and worked brilliantly with Giménez to form an impenetrable wall in front of keeper Fernando Muslera. He thwarted plenty of Egyptian attacks, and could well have scored had his central defensive partner not stolen the moment from him. He was as consistent as ever.
4. Ahmed Fathy (Egypt)
Given the captaincy for Egypt’s first World Cup match since 1990, Fathy didn’t disappoint and put in a brilliant performance at right-back. His defensive work was clean and his ability to impact the game all over the ground was a testament to the effort he put in. He was a very calm presence, and was a thorn in Uruguay’s side throughout.
5. Luis Suárez (Uruguay)
Suárez wasn’t quite in top form, and he missed a number of very gettable chances, but he made himself a nuisance for the Egyptian defence all day. His positioning was excellent, and the improvement in his combination with Cavani as the game progressed bodes well for the rest of the tournament. If he starts taking chances, his opponents will be in trouble.