IT was all over just past the hour mark. The last 30 minutes of the first quarter-final here on Friday were a procession for France. Errors like the one by Fernando Muslera at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium do that to a game. They prevent a World Cup fixture of this magnitude from being a riveting, edge-of-the-seat contest that it should be. Muslera’s howler really knocked the stuffing out of Uruguay. After that, they never really looked like they would be able to get back into the game.
Uruguay had already suffered a huge blow in the lead-up to this game when Edinson Cavani, the hero of their last-16 triumph against Portugal, was ruled out of the game. Their misery was complete when Muslera fumbled a harmless shot from Antoine Griezmann into his own net in the 61st minute. The Uruguay goalkeeper got both hands to the shot and even had time to turn and look back at the ball dropping inside the goal. The look on his face, as he saw the ball go in, summed up how hapless an evening this was for Uruguay.
France completely overwhelmed Uruguay in a 2-0 victory, putting in a complete and commanding performance in which they showed both defensive stability and, at times, some offensive charm. The final touch, though, was missing. That flowing move that ended in a goal never came. They didn’t need it anyways. Rafael Varane opened the scoring five minutes, meeting Antoine Griezmann’s free-kick with a glancing header that nestled itself into the far-corner.
Getting an equalizer seemed not beyond reach for Uruguay. But getting two back, in half an hour, seemed mission impossible. France weren’t really tested and Uruguay were broken and devastated much before the final whistle.
Didier Deschamps’ side will go into their semi-final knowing well that they are a side well equipped to take down anyone — even Brazil.
“We have a very strong defence which helped us keep a clean sheet,” man-of-the-match Griezmann said at a news conference afterwards. “We don’t have a defined style. We change it depending on the opponent we face. We will stay calm and now focus on the semi-final.”
France captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris echoed Griezmann’s views. “It was tough to get the win but it was courtesy our back four which really controlled everything.”
Victory for France represents going one step better than in Brazil when they fell in the last eight.
“Today, we’re definitely stronger than we were four years ago,” Lloris added. “We are the youngest team in the tournament but our intelligence of play is very high.”
For Oscar Tabarez’s men, the defeat represents the end of the road for their golden generation who will all very likely end their careers without a World Cup.
“I’m proud of my team-mates,” said Uruguay’s defensive lynchpin and captain Diego Godin. “We are a team where everyone gives everything in the matches and in preparation.”
He also had words of consolation for Muslera. “Fernando is a great goalkeeper … we all make mistakes. On other occasions, he has rescued us with incredible saves.”
Tabarez didn’t comment on his future. He’s now been with Uruguay for 12 years with the 2011 Copa America title being the highlight of his reign.
“The Uruguay Football Federation will decide this,” he said at the post-match press conference. “I’ve never liked commenting on such things and won’t do today. I don’t know what is going to happen. What I do know is that Uruguay is a football nation and will keep developing.”
Uruguay had come into the match having conceded just one goal in four games. They could’ve seen more of that defensive solidity had they found more precision going forward and nicking an early goal.
The first-half was tight, but lively. Both teams showed interesting buildup play in midfield with some neat tricks and flicks but it all went astray in the final third. With Cavani not starting, there were fears that Uruguay would pack men behind the ball with their defence-first approach.
In the last-16, they had overcome Portugal with just 39 per cent possession but then, with Cavani, Uruguay showed some blistering transitions from defence to attack.
Despite missing their attacking reference, Uruguay started full of running and pinged some balls into the French box which were cleared before they could test Lloris. Their approach meant France, and the speedy Kylian Mbappe, could run into the spaces that opened up. Mbappe should’ve given France the lead a quarter of an hour in when he had the time in space to control a cross from fellow forward Olivier Giroud but only contrived to rush at it and sent a looping header over the crossbar.
As the match wore on, though, France settled in and began dominating. On the other end, Luis Suarez, for all his efforts, cut an isolated figure with Cavani’s replacement Cristhian Stuani being largely ineffective. Uruguay’s defensive solidity had seen them withstand France for 40 minutes but they were breached when no one tracked the run of Varane from Griezmann’s free-kick after Rodrigo Bentancur had upended Correntin Tolisso.
It set up the game perfectly for France, even though they were indebted to Lloris for making an outstanding save on the stroke of half-time when he dived full length to get his fingertips to a Martin Caceres header and thankfully for them Godin smashed the rebound wide.
The second-half saw Suarez drop deep to try and create something for his side but it was all in vain. Tabarez knew he needed to do something to revitalise his side and replaced Bentancur and Stuani with Cristian Rodriguez and Maximiliano Gomez. He didn’t get what he wanted, though, as France scored their second almost immediately.
On the flight back to Montevideo, Muslera will have a lot of time to think what he could’ve done with that shot by Griezmann. Uruguay will think what could’ve been if Cavani wasn’t injured. Once again, they are left with pain and regret.
Published in Dawn, July 07th, 2018