x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

South Africa left with uphill struggle

Reality crashes in upon the dream as Diego Forlan scores twice in Uruguay's 3-0 win against South Africa.

Uruguay's Diego Forlan celebrates after scoring his second against South Africa last night.
Uruguay's Diego Forlan celebrates after scoring his second against South Africa last night.

PRETORIA // Reality has crashed in upon the dream. Friday's draw against Mexico had been enough for South Africa fans to come to Loftus Versfeld last night in buoyant spirits. After a lesson in gamecraft from a canny Uruguay, though, the Bafana Bafana are left needing to beat France in Bloemfontein on Tuesday to have even a chance of avoiding becoming the first hosts to go out in the group stage. Ignore the fact that Uruguay's opener took an enormous deflection: this was a game they controlled almost from the start. They were smarter, sharper and just more intelligent than South Africa, inflicting upon them their first defeat in 14 matches, and looking every one of the 66 places they stand above South Africa in Fifa's world rankings.

It was the sort of evening to make even the grumpiest of curmudgeons forget the various logistical difficulties of the tournament. The atmosphere for the hosts' opening game was highly charged, but there was even greater emotion last night as South Africa celebrated Youth Day commemorating the 1976 Soweto Uprising in which police fired on 20,000 demonstrating students, killing 700. Uruguay's role was as an opponent to be dismissed so the revelry could really begin, but they arrived as ghosts at the feast, and effectively stifled South Africa in the early stages.

There were a couple of corners, a scramble after a free-kick, and a Siphiwe Tshabalala drive from 30 yards that, like so many long-range efforts in this tournament, flew well over, but South Africa's poverty of invention was exposed. Mexico were slack enough in the opener to allow the hosts to create chances, but as a defensive unit Uruguay are a far more sophisticated force. Having deflated - to an extent - the fervency of the crowd, Uruguay began to assert themselves. Luis Suarez offered a warning with an angled drive straight at Itumeleng Kwune midway through the first half, and within a minute Forlan had given Uruguay the lead, his shot from just outside the box clipping the head of Aaron Mokoena and looping just under the crossbar as Kwune stood helpless.

At that, the whole mood seemed to drop; there is a bristling professionalism about Uruguay that suggests they are not a side to concede leads easily. The introduction of Edinson Cavani into the line-up and switch to a 4-3-1-2 with Forlan in the hole gave them a menace they had lacked in their goalless draw against France, but for the most part they were happy to keep possession, holding South Africa at bay.

So frustrated did Kagisho Dikgacoi become that the Fulham midfielder lunged in on Suarez, earning a booking that will keep him out of next week's final group game against France. A bitty start to the second half did little to soothe South Africa's anxiety. Cavani was only prevented from getting to Suarez's low cross by a timely challenge from Tsepo Masilela, and then Diego Lugano, having been left unmarked to meet Forlan's free-kick, misjudged a free header so badly the ball looped wide off the back his neck.

Dikgacoi should then have seen red for a two-footed tackle which led to Jorge Fucile, Uruguay's left-back, limping from the field. Uruguay may have been wasting opportunities, but at least they were creating them, while South Africa found themselves trapped in a web of white shirts every time they crossed halfway. The final cut was delivered after 77 minutes as Khune was dismissed for felling Suarez, and Forlan converted the resulting penalty. The ease with which Uruguay repelled South Africa was anticlimactic; only Bloemfontein, by repute the most passionate of South African grounds, offers the chance of a glorious last stand. And a third strike in injury time gave Uruguay a winning margin their dominance deserved. Suarez collected the ball at the back post and crossed for Alvaro Pereira to tap in from point-blank range. sports@thenational.ae

Group A
Country M W D L GF GA Pts
Uruguay 2 1 1 0 3 0 4
Mexico 1 0 1 0 1 1 1
South Africa 2 0 1 1 1 4 1
France 1 0 1 0 0 0 1