Uruguay booked their place in the knockout stages of the 2018 World Cup with a stoic and workmanlike 1-0 victory over resurgent Saudi Arabia.
Much like in their opening 1-0 win over Egypt, it was a tense affair against a vastly improved Saudi side, who huffed and puffed but simply didn’t have the quality required to break La Celeste down.
Barcelona frontman Luis Suarez, off-colour in their opener against Egypt, grabbed the only goal in the first-half as Oscar Tabarez’s men march on in Russia.
Here, we look at three talking points from the game:
Tabarez turns to the kids
Rodrigo Bentancur made more passes for Uruguay than anyone else.
Uruguay have always been a staunch and solid outfit brimming with experience and battle-hardened veterans who know how to win.
Oscar Tabarez’s stalwarts have youthful exuberance to back them up at this World Cup, however, which hasn’t been the case in recent editions.
The hallmark of La Celeste sides of the past has been experience. In 2014, 12 of the squad had between 50 and 100 caps, while Diego Forlan was already a centurion.
Four of the 2018 vintage have reached triple figures, including Barcelona’s Luis Suarez who celebrated his 100th appearance with a goal, while goalkeeper Fernando Muslera (99) will reach the mark in Russia, barring injury.
That tremendous bond and familiarity with each other serves them well, but in Russia Tabarez, similarly vastly experienced, has decided to introduce a pinch of youth to the strong veteran blend.
Rodrigo Bentancur (20), Nahitan Nandez, Lucas Torreira (both 22), Giorgian De Arrascaeta (24), Diego Laxalt (25) and Matias Vecino (26) make up the majority of the eight-man midfield unit, with Vecino and Bentancur anchoring against Saudi.
Exciting Juventus man Bentancur made more passes than any teammate (80), substitute Torreira, reported to be on the brink of joining Arsenal, made three interceptions in his 31-minute cameo, while Genoa’s Laxalt looked neat and tidy when introduced.
Six of the eight-strong midfield unit are the aforementioned whippersnappers.
It’s a bold move by the rigid Tabarez, but he could be rewarded the further his team go.
Gimenez in the mould of Godin
Jose Gimenez has a perfect role model in Diego Godin.
What better mentor could there be in world football for Jose Gimenez to learn under than Diego Godin? Having just completed a fourth season in a row at club level with the stalwart by his side, the master and the kid now anchor Uruguay’s rigid defence.
The 23-year-old has his whole career ahead of him but is already on the brink of half a century of caps (44) for his country, having featured at the last World Cup as a fresh-faced 19-year-old – coming in and keeping his place after failing to feature in the opening 3-1 humiliation at the hands of Costa Rica.
Gimenez may have learnt from one of the best but he’s breaking out on his own at this tournament – registering two tackles, interceptions and clearances against Saudi. His 96.8 per cent pass success was only bettered by right-back Guillermo Varela, while he completed 100 per cent of his 33 first half passes.
At the rate he’s progressing and with the stats he’s already racking up, it’s easy to see the Atletico Madrid man toppling Godin (119) in second place or Maxi Pereira (125) in top spot on Uruguay’s top appearance makers.
He’s still just a boy in terms of his career. But in terms of stature and importance he’s very much a man.
Green Falcons can fly home with pride
Saudi Arabia can hold their heads high.
So, Saudi Arabia are sent home early from Russia, but their players and a nation can be proud at the effort mustered in a battling 1-0 defeat to Uruguay.
It was a far cry from the capitulation on opening night against hosts Russia – who were the only nation ranked lower than the Green Falcons coming into the World Cup.
Pride was restored against gritty opponents in Rostov. Who knows, with a little more magic to help the tireless Fahad Al Muwallad up front, there could have been goals too – but for all their efforts, Muslera in the La Celeste net was woefully underworked.
It’s all well and good making up for that dismal effort on the opening day of the tournament, but with Juan Antonio Pizzi’s side knowing they’re heading home despite one more game to play, you can’t help but wonder why they were so bad against Russia – who despite recent performances – are no world beaters.
The Saudis have paid the price for shambolic preparation ahead of the world’s grandest tournament, which included firing Bert van Marwijk last September, days after he secured qualification for Russia, returning them to the big stage for the first time in 12 years.
Ever since it has been a disaster waiting to happen, with former UAE coach Edgardo Bauza replacing him, but then sacked two months later in November 2017. Pizzi was immediately appointed but he always faced an uphill task to steady a ship that had been thrown way off course.