Barcelona's Luis Suarez and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo clash and other Uruguay v Portugal talking points

Matt Jones 29/06/2018
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Cristiano Ronaldo leads Portugal into a meeting with Uruguay.

Uruguay and Portugal square up in Sochi as the World Cup’s last 16 get under way on Saturday, with the European champions’ tussle with the stingy South Americans one of the standout ties.

Both boast star strikers the envy of the world, who can score at any moment in Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez, while La Celeste’s gritty defence gives them the edge at the back.

Here, we take a look at three burning issues ahead of the game.

DEFENSIVE DUO ARE CENTRAL TO URUGUAY’S HOPES

Uru v Rus

Uruguay probably aren’t the prettiest side to watch in world football, but they’re effective. And while they’re trademark is grit and tenacity rather than flair and craft, they also possess some pretty special attacking players.

Suarez and Edinson Cavani both got on the scoresheet in their final group game as Russia were put to the sword, and the fact that those two are starting to stir – combined with their rigid defence – is not an encouraging sign for European champions Portugal.

He’s now one of the father figures of this Uruguay side bursting with exciting young talent, but Diego Godin remains a man with a celestial presence for La Celeste.

He has arguably the country’s biggest burgeoning young talent beside him in the heart of defence to do the sprinting and nullify the speed of pacy opposition strikers.

But whatever Jose Gimenez brings to the partnership, it pales in comparison to what the young man is learning off his veteran skipper.

The 32-year-old master and 23-year-old student form the foundations of a formidable defence at Atletico Madrid and that has been translated to the international arena, where the partnership is possibly the most solid of any nation left in the tournament.

There may be a nine-year age gap but both players are leaders and they are leading the statistics at this World Cup – the duo top among tackles, clearances and interceptions.

It’s easy to imagine Gimenez becoming national team captain one day – despite being 23 he is already on 44 caps.

Godin still has a few more years left in him of course, but Uruguay have a ready-made replacement ready and waiting and right by his side.

WHO WILL WIN BATTLE OF TWO TOTEMIC FORWARDS?

Ronaldo

Two heavyweights in every sense of the word square up in Sochi, which should serve up a tasty appetiser as the business end of the tournament starts on Saturday.

And while most would probably pick Real Madrid powerhouse Ronaldo if given a choice between him and Barcelona hitman Suarez, Portugal fans may well worry about the form of their charismatic captain coming into this last 16 clash.

He started the tournament with a bang, rocketing in a hat-trick in a rampant one-man display of real class in the thrilling 3-3 draw with Spain.

He scored again in a nervy 1-0 victory over Morocco, but was abysmal in the final group game with Iran, as the European champions ultimately scraped into the knockouts. His pass success rate of 74.2 per cent was the worst of anyone in Portugal’s starting XI and his penalty miss encapsulated his miserable day – it would have been summed up had he been red carded in a decision that was referred to VAR.

Meanwhile, Suarez is strolling into the last 16, much like La Celeste, in fine form. The Barca forward was at his brilliant best as Russia were ravaged 3-0 in the final group game – one in which his fine opening free-kick set the tone as Uruguay breezed to victory.

In form and firing, he could cause massive problems for Portugal.

MOUTINHO MUST BE RECALLED

Moutinho

Adrien Silva endured a mixed outing when he came into the Portugal line-up in place of Joao Moutinho against Iran.

On the one hand he was on the ball far more than any colleague – playing 106 touches, 21 more than any teammate. His pass accuracy of 94.3 per cent was also the best of the rest of his colleagues, while he delivered two key passes (only Joao Mario’s three proved superior).

But he still wasn’t able to truly get a grip on the game as Portugal were made to sweat on their last 16 spot, with Iran equalising from the penalty spot and squandering a golden opportunity to sneak a 2-1 win which would have sent them through and Fernando Santos’ side home.

The Leicester City man was also dispossessed three times and registered two unskilled touches. And after Iran manager Carlos Queiroz altered his tactics and put striker Sardar Azmoun on the case of pressurising Silva’s midfield partner William Carvalho, it led to Iran gaining a grip on proceedings and Silva’s influence fading further.

Moutinho was strangely left out despite being Portugal’s best player against Morocco.

Admittedly they shrunk to the sanctuary of the shadows after Ronaldo headed them into an early lead, but Monaco’s Moutinho was still a menace.

Two key passes – including swinging in the cross for the only goal – plus a second highest pass completion percentage of 84.2 and the third most touches. With a titanic tussle expected, expect Moutinho to be recalled.

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Belgium's Adnan Januzaj thrilled to have silenced his critics

Rory Dollard 29/06/2018
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Match winner: Adnan Januzaj

Belgium winger Adnan Januzaj believes he has shown sceptical English fans his true quality after downing the Three Lions with a sweetly-struck winner in Kaliningrad.

Januzaj toyed with Danny Rose before unleashing a classy finish to hand Belgium a 1-0 win over England on Thursday.

The Red Devils duly topped Group G with maximum points, which could turn out to be a dubious honour if it leads to a quarter-final meeting with Brazil.

But for Januzaj there was a case of personal pride – as well as national interest – at stake.

He was briefly flavour of the month when he came through the ranks at Manchester United, with suggestions the Football Association had even looked into his eligibility for England.

His Old Trafford career soon went off the boil and he left for Real Sociedad after an unsuccessful loan stint at Sunderland spelled the end of his Premier League adventure.

“Obviously my job was to show the people, in the past in England, I had a lot of criticism,” he said after his first international goal.

“I wanted to show those people that I’m here. I’m very happy with that. I’m very pleased to score a great goal against a good opponent.

“I’ve put in a lot of work. This year I’ve been playing in a team at Real Sociedad who have made me grow as a player. At 23, the most important thing is to play games and keep progressing. I’m very pleased to be going that way.”

Januzaj still faces a battle to crack Belgium’s star-studded first XI, only getting his chance against England as both sides rang the changes, but he now has the taste for the big stage.

“I hope now to keep going,” he said.

“My first goal, there is no greater feeling. I was very pleased with that, and hopefully there’ll be more to come in the future.”

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Bringing on Harry Kane against Belgium would have been ridiculous, says Gareth Southgate

Simon Peach 29/06/2018
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No complaints: Gareth Southgate

Gareth Southgate claimed it would have been “ridiculous” to risk Harry Kane and chase a leveller against Belgium as the England manager defended his decision to put preparations for the World Cup last 16 first.

Colombia await in the first knockout phase in Moscow next Tuesday after Adnan Januzaj’s stunner sealed victory in the battle of the back-ups, with the Three Lions’ first loss in a year meaning they finish second in Group G.

There was a strange feeling around the game as both teams were already assured of progress to the last 16, with talk about the best path to the final compounded by a combined 17 changes.

Southgate ensured every outfield player got a run out in the group stage, but the decision not to bring on Golden Boot leader Kane when chasing the match was striking as a draw would have seen them top the group on fair play.

“Well, with respect, in the Euros I think we were only ahead for a few minutes of any of the games,” Southgate said, referring to Euro 2016. “I think here we’ve played extremely well.

“We’ve played well in the games leading into it and played well in the tournament.

“Tonight we’ve played OK. I don’t think we’ve played poorly at all tonight.

“We know that depending on which players we pick in certain positions, we just have a different profile of threat.

“Maybe we didn’t have as many runners in behind tonight and we didn’t have the link between the lines quite as well, but lots of good individual moments for all of the players and a lot that we can learn from as well.

“So, I think for us it was a really good experience. We don’t like losing, we don’t want to lose matches, but the primary objectives we wanted from the evening we’ve got.

“I think the supporters in the stadium understood that as well.

“The level of support was brilliant throughout and I think they could see we were still pushing until the end but we wanted to do that in a way that… look, if we put Harry on for 10 minutes and somebody whacks him down his ankle, that would be ridiculous.

“So, everybody knows that the most important game is the knockout game.”

Southgate called the Colombia match England’s “biggest game for a decade”, so was comfortable defending himself when asked if he had a responsibility to fans and the tournament to have winning matches as his top priority.

“When you’re a leader and a manager, you have got to make decisions that are right for your group and are right for the primary objective,” the Three Lions boss said.

“Sometimes those decisions will be criticised and I understand that because only one person has to make that decision.

“But as a group of staff we were very clear on what we felt that needed physically, medically, tactically for the benefit of the group.

“We have got 20 outfield players now who have played in a World Cup – that’s hugely important for the feeling in our camp over the next few weeks.

“And, yeah, maybe we could have pushed a bit more by putting other players into the game tonight, but we still created chances, we had one absolutely fantastic chance to tie the game.

“So, I had to balance that. I know in some quarters that will be criticised but I am entirely comfortable with that.

“Sometimes you have got to make decisions for the bigger picture and that’s what I did tonight.”

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