FRIDAY’S first quarter-final will be the last match of the World Cup in the city of Maxim Gorky. Up until 1990, Nizhny Novgorod was previously called Gorky, after the eminent Russian writer and the game at the Stadium that looks over Gorky’s city would be the last at the World Cup for either France or Uruguay.
Gorky’s favourite sports were fishing and hunting but if he were to be still alive, even he would’ve been gripped by this game that has been dubbed as a contest between an immovable defence and an unstoppable attack.
The immovable defence is that of Uruguay, which has conceded just one goal — joint lowest with Brazil — in their run to the quarter-final. Marshalled by Diego Godin and Jose Giminez, both team-mates at club level as well — in a strong-drilled Atletico Madrid side, Uruguay are a tough lot to score against. Add to that the fact that they defend as a collective, they are a dreaded opposition and France coach Didier Deschamps didn’t hide from the task faced by his side.
“They are a team with so many qualities… so many assets,” said Deschamps at the pre-match press conference on Thursday. “They know how to defend as a unit. They work so hard and their strikers and wingers all contribute to that defensive structure. We will need to be patient against them but that’s not the only virtue we will need.”
Getting past that defence will be the mission for France’s unstoppable attack. In their last-16 match, France showed exactly how devastating they can be when going forward, especially with the mesmeric pace of Kylian Mbappe and the guile of Antoine Griezmann.
In their 4-3 win, Mbappe tore past the Argentina defence with clinical precision, leaving the opposition chasing his shadows and helping himself to two goals. But the question is whether Uruguay will give him so much space to exploit.
“French football has always been strong but this is a very strong team,” Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez said at the pre-match news conference on Thursday. “They have young players who are extremely good. We know what they’re doing and we are analysing them and we will try to control them and cause them problems. We have a plan and we’re a team that builds from the strong defence and that’s something that will not change.”
The two teams have met six times in the past with France having never won against the South Americans. They will need to change that if they are to win the World Cup for the first time since their sole triumph in 1998. Uruguay have had an even longer wait. They are looking for a first World Cup since 1950 and a third title overall.
Both sides come into the game players who have been key to their runs to the last-eight in Russia. Uruguay are potentially missing their reference point in attack, Edinson Cavani, who scored both their goals in the 2-1 victory over Portugal in the last-eight but injured his left calf in the same game.
Tabarez, however, refused to confirm about Cavani’s absence even though the striker has trained separately from the rest of the team. In the past, Tabarez has set a 48-hour deadline to injured players to train with the team if they are to start.
“Since Edinson got this injury, he’s of course been very sad but he’s been working really hard to recover,” said Tabarez. “He’s concentrating on getting back into the team, getting back his dreams. I’m not going to say anything about Cavani. You’ll get to know if he’s playing or not less than 24 hours from now.”
With Cavani out, Tabarez will be resting his hopes with Cristhian Stuani, who has come to the World Cup on the back of a prolific season with Girona — the promoted club who he help retain their La Liga status with 21 goals.
France, meanwhile, will be without the suspended midfielder Blaise Matuidi, who provides the team with key balance in midfield. Matuidi’s mobility down the left and the ability to close spaces down for Lionel Messi and co against Argentina gave Mbappe the freedom down the other side. It was because of that midfield base that France produced one of the most sizzling attacking performances of the World Cup.
“I have other players with different profiles,” said Deschamps when asked about Matuidi’s replacement. “We have a style which we need to play up to and be recognised.”
On potentially starting Olumpique Lyonnais forward Nabil Fekir in Matuidi’s place, Deschamps added: “Fekir is different than Matuidi and has great attacking skills.”
Despite the absences, if both teams play to their full potential, a cracker is in store at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium. Both coaches agreed that it would be a game that would be decided on the finest of details. With both teams on such an even keel, this match could be decided by a moment of magic or a moment of madness.
Published in Dawn, July 06th, 2018