Uruguay hand Russia a World Cup reality check to top Group A
Suarez, Cavani and a Cheryshev own goal ensured an emphatic victory for the South Americans
This, perhaps, was the Russia we expected, the team the Moscow Times proclaimed on the day the World Cup began was “doomed to fail”.
It proved a wayward prediction: failure was averted when Russia scored eight goals in two wins to qualify with a game to spare. Yet their record World Cup defeat felt a reality check for the suddenly buoyant hosts as they lost top spot in Group A.
Uruguay were conspicuously better, cleverer and sharper, quick to take the lead and comfortably able to hold on to it. Russia were largely impotent in attack and clumsy and off the pace in defence. Late challenges cost them a goal and a man, in different respects.
Russia were resoundingly mediocre, prompting the question if they can recapture the spark that brought three goals in a quarter of an hour against Egypt when the knockout stages commence.
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In contrast, Uruguay can sense that they are improving as the tournament progresses. Luis Suarez is yet to reach his irrepressible best but, after an out-of-sorts start, he has now scored in successive games.
The persistent Edinson Cavani finally registered his first goal of this World Cup in the last minute after poor Russian marking from a corner allowed Diego Godin to win a header.
Godin expertly anchored a Uruguay defence that remained resolute while there was more fluency after a rigid 4-4-2 was abandoned to introduce a midfield diamond. Carlos Sanchez, who excelled against Saudi Arabia, was unfortunate to be omitted but it looked a system to suit Oscar Tabarez’s side. Rodrigo Bentancur relished the freedom afforded him at the tip of that diamond.
The theory had been that Uruguay’s young generation of midfielders would enable them to play a more technical game but there was too little evidence to support that in their wins over Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
A change of shape allowed them to mount different sorts of attacks. Russia looked far more fallible than they had in their two victories. They soon trailed. Suarez led a break, Bentancur was chopped down by Yuri Gazinsky on the edge of the box and Uruguay’s record scorer beat Igor Akinfeev with a low free kick. The odd element was that Sergei Ignashevich pushed Cavani out of the wall, creating the gap where Suarez’s shot went.
The Uruguayan rearguard was altogether more redoubtable, even in the absence of injured centre-back Jose Gimenez. There were suspicions Tabarez would play a back three.
Instead the attack-minded Diego Laxalt came in at left-back. His offensive threat was highlighted when Uruguay doubled their lead. The Genoa man let fly from 20 yards and Denys Cheryshev, who had scored three goals in Russia’s first two games, was debited with one after a sizeable deflection.
Thereafter, the cautioned Bentancur had already made way as Tabarez took no chances. Both sides had an eye on the knockout stages. Russia omitted Aleksandr Golovin, who is a booking away from a ban. They will nevertheless be without a suspended player in the last 16.
Igor Smolnikov collected two cautions in nine first-half minutes to earn just the tournament’s third red card. Smolnikov was only selected to give right-back Mario Fernandes a rest; instead, the red card meant the regular was summoned and Cheryshev sacrificed.
Cheryshev had spurned Russia’s best chance, with a shot that bounced back off Fernando Muslera. The goalkeeper gifted Artem Dzyuba with a chance, which he sliced wide, with a poor clearance but marked his 100th cap with a third consecutive clean sheet.
This was Russia’s first taste of chasing a game; perhaps it was unfair to judge their efforts with 10 men but it did not augur well for more meaningful tests.
Updated: June 25, 2018 08:50 PM