Luis Suárez (Left) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Right)
Two sumptuous goals from Edinson Cavani set up a tantalising quarter-final meeting with France on Friday on a day when hope of a Messi-Ronaldo showdown in Nizhny Novgorod was vanquished.
Yet this was not quite the fairytale for Cavani that France’s thrilling 4-3 victory over Argentina had proved for his club team-mate, Mbappe, who also scored twice, earlier in the day.
There was only 10 minutes between Cavani scoring Uruguay’s decisive second, after the Portugal defender Pepe had cancelled out his opening goal, and the striker pulling up with a hamstring injury and limping off with a crestfallen look on his face.
Oscar Tabarez, the Uruguay coach, said Cavani would be assessed, but with only six days until they face France, time is against him. “He felt pain,” Tabarez said. “We don’t have a lot of time for recovery but after a rest day we will have a diagnosis. Now we are worried but right now we don’t know how grave this injury is.”
Cavani was helped off the field in a show of great sportsmanship from Ronaldo but this was the closest the Portugal captain got to making an impression on the game. The Real Madrid maestro was a virtual bystander, powerless, like Messi, to prevent his team’s exit, his misery compounded in the closing seconds when he was booked for protesting over a perceived Uruguay foul.
It was actually the only yellow card of a game that, while ferociously fought, didn’t descend into the slugfest many anticipated. Whether Ronaldo gets another stab at winning a World Cup in Qatar in four years time, when he will be 37, remains to be seen but Fernando Santos expects him to still be there when qualifying for Euro 2020 begins in September. “Cristiano still has a lot to give, there’s qualifying starting in September and, of course, we hope Cristiano will be with us to help these young players to grow. It’s important to have the captain’s presence there and he’s always there for us.”
Portugal were certainly knocking on Uruguay’s door in the final 20 minutes but it was Bernardo Silva and others, rather than a strangely subdued Ronaldo, who led the fight, only to be repelled time and again by Uruguay’s outstanding defence, which played as big a part in this victory as its electrifying attack. And what an attack, one that will be sadly weakened if Cavani is missing against France.
There have been all manner of arresting goals scored in this tournament but a pair of centre-forwards combining to convert what was effectively a 100-yard one-two provided a new category altogether.
Cavani picked up the ball on Uruguay’s right touchline, about 15 yards past the halfway line, and speared a raking pass over to Suarez on the opposite side. Suarez controlled on his chest and, while Cavani made a dash for the six-yard box, the Barcelona striker cut inside Ricardo and then bent a venomous, humdinger of a cross from the edge of the penalty area over Jose Fonte and the despairing Raphael Guerreiro to Cavani.
Initially, it looked as if Cavani had craned his neck quite superbly to head home from close range. In fact, the ball hit his face and bounced in but the combination play was still something to savour. “There was no scheme against that – it was an incredible play,” Santos said. “Uruguay have never scored like that. We weren’t prepared to control that sort of movement from Cavani and Suarez.”
That was seven minutes in and an early reminder that, for all its pre-match billing as a bruising, cynical encounter between some of the game’s most wily and belligerent individuals, there were plenty of players on show who could play a bit, too.
That is not to say the fine arts were not interspersed with some occasional dark arts. There was some play-acting from Suarez and Pepe, a late poleaxing of Fonte by the uncompromising Martin Caceres and some grizzled old-school defending from the imperious Diego Godin, whose reaction to planting his forehead into the back of Goncalo Guedes’s head was the quickest rub and a shrug of the shoulders. But for the most part it was a game played hard but fair and was all the more engrossing for it.
It was slim pickings for Ronaldo throughout, though. There were shades of the 2009 Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United early on when he kept trying his hand from distance. One sighter was comfortably saved, another charged down and then he bludgeoned a free-kick into a wall, but, as the game wore on, he became increasingly peripheral as Portugal instead looked to Bernardo.
Ronaldo’s one contribution of note was to draw the attention of Godin and his equally brilliant central-defensive partner, Jose Gimenez, away from Pepe and allow his Portugal team-mate the space and opportunity to head home Guerreiro’s corner.
The goal was a frustration for Uruguay but no more. It was pretty much the only time their obdurate, highly-organised backline was breached but there is strength and balance running through this side and, within seven minutes, they were back in front.
The ease with which Rodrigo Bentancur picked up possession after a long punt up field was knocked down will grate with Santos but make no mistake about the quality that followed. Bentancur swept the ball across the edge of the penalty, right to left, and into the path of Cavani, who opened up his body and stroked a sublime first-time finish low into the far corner. It would be Cavani’s last contribution. But what a contribution, the kind Ronaldo must have dreamt of.
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