Barcelona star Luis Suarez and Kylian Mbappe dominate narrative for Uruguay and France

Alex Rea 5/07/2018
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Of the eight teams who remain in the World Cup, not one possesses a player who has won the tournament or in fact has appeared in a final.

But two sides with previous World Cup pedigree and a current crop of real thoroughbreds contest the opening quarter-final as Uruguay and France meet at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium on Friday (UAE time 18:00).

The two-time winning South Americans have been a picture of consistency throughout the tournament and although Les Bleus flattered to deceive in the group stages, they sparked to life last time out against Argentina.

Here, we examine some of the key questions ahead of the last-eight clash.

CAVE WITHOUT CAV?

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Pictures emerged this week of striker Edinson Cavani hobbling down the stairs of the team’s hotel and without him, Uruguay may well struggle to climb past France.

The 31-year-old was outstanding during the 2-1 elimination of Portugal but the blot arrived in the second half as he was forced off with a thigh injury.

Indeed, aside from his two goals, the Paris Saint-Germain star demonstrated why he is one of the world’s most complete forwards.

He held the ball up superbly, dropped deep to support his midfield and made tackles while also pressing and bullying Portugal into mistakes before then producing the goods in front of goal.

And the cerebral understanding Cavani’s developed with Luis Suarez is as much part of Uruguay’s identity as Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez are at the back.

Uruguay’s solidity begins with the two frontmen as both run themselves into the ground for any long ball lumped forward and while the alternatives, Girona’s Cristhian Stuani or Celta Vigo’s Maximiliano Gomez, can replace the work ethic, they cannot offer the same finishing prowess.

Naturally, pressure will fall on Suarez’s shoulders and it will be of great discomfort for boss Oscar Tabarez that he picked up a knock in training.

The Barcelona predator is expected to be fit to face France but the prognosis for Cavani is far less favourable. Suarez, though, was his strike partner’s equal against Portugal and if the 31-year-old can replicate that display, La Celeste can win the battle of blues.

WILL LIGHTNING FEET STRIKE TWICE?

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A Kylian Mbappe shaped lightning bolt struck through the centre of a soft Argentina backline in the last-16 and the current of that electric performance sent shockwaves around the world.

Credit must go to the boldness of Les Bleus boss Didier Deschamps as his ploy to switch into a hybrid 4-4-2/4-3-3 with Blaise Matuidi as a left-sided centre-midfielder was designed to charge up the teenager.

And the PSG forward was a space invader, gobbling up gaps as if he possessed some cheat code in his free-roaming role.

Speed of feet and thought were of course his weapons as the 19-year-old earned a penalty then notched a brace, but as the conversation turns towards his future Ballon d’Or credentials, the tactical talking point now is whether can he do it again.

Argentina’s suicidal centre-backs pushed up high against France and then practically fell over themselves as Mbappe ran at them.

He is unlikely to be afforded the same room to move on Friday against arguably the most organised and compact defence in the tournament.

Godin and Gimenez combine for a pairing which was the tightest in European club football at Atletico Madrid and the only difference in Russia is the colour of their kit.

Piercing pace is blunted by a lack of space and few centre-backs defend pockets better than Godin. Add to that Paul Pogba won’t be granted the same time on the ball to ping long balls on the counter and Deschamps may well need to devise another route to goal.

THROW THE DICE ON DEMBELE?

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So what are the other options in France’s armory? Ousmane Dembele was dropped against Argentina to help alleviate Mbappe’s defensive responsibility but could be welcomed back.

While the 21-year-old has mirrored his struggles for Barcelona for France, he does bring what could be a crucial quality – natural width.

Making inroads through the middle could see France run into traffic but where they could find joy is out wide.

Mbappe is more adept at drifting centrally than he is hugging the touchline but Dembele is practically married to it.

He’s direct and tricky, both assets which could unsettle aging right-back Martin Caceres and therefore create the opening for either the head of Olivier Giroud or the guile of Antoine Griezmann.

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Harry Maguire has quickly become England's newest World Cup cult hero

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Won everything in the air: Harry Maguire.

Gareth Southgate’s son wears an England shirt with Harry Maguire’s name and number on the back.

That, in a nutshell, tells you everything you need to know about Leicester’s lion-like centre-back who was a colossus during the Colombia game and is fast-becoming a cult hero among fans.

The 25-year-old, who stands at 6 ft 4 in tall and has a huge 100kg frame, would not look out of place on the back row for England Rugby and makes great use of his physical prowess.

His man-mountain display on Tuesday night – which included winning 12 aerial duels, the most by a defender at this World Cup inclusive of extra-time so far – showcased his dominance and stature in what was a physical contest, marred by play-acting, time-wasting and dissent.

Maguire may be short of a turn of pace or the technicality of a modern-day defender playing the ball out of the back with ease, even so, throughout this tournament he has looked like a veteran international.

Indeed, it makes a mockery out of the fact he only has nine England caps to his name so far.

He has adhered himself to Southgate’s son, the manager himself and the masses through his wholehearted commitment and style, something England fans will always applaud and support in their droves.

In essence, supporters look at the former Sheffield United and Hull City defender as if he is one of their own out there, living out their dream.

Let’s not forget, that two years ago during Euro 2016, Maguire was in the stands watching on with friends during the match against Slovakia.

That has definitely given him the perspective of what it means to wear the jersey.

The Foxes star, who has been linked with a big-money move this summer to one of the Premier League‘s big six, has formed a strong partnership with John Stones within a three-man central defence, also including Kyle Walker.

The robustness of Maguire has actually been the perfect foil for Stones, with the Manchester City defender certainly more cultured and growing into this tournament after a difficult season at club level.

He was commanding, composed and assured for the most part against Colombia, keeping Radamel Falcao quiet (footballing wise that is) in an all-action display that really showed what he is all about. Stones made 10 clearances, three tackles, three interceptions and won the lion’s share of his aerial battles.

Importantly, he threaded passes neatly into the midfield, supplying Kieran Trippier often and even looking further left for Ashley Young, boasting a pass completion rate of 90.7 per cent in total among his 103 touches.

The pace of right-sided defender Walker is a blessing for the two traditional centre-backs, though the Sky Blues man has been prone to lapses of concentration.

Better finishing from Juan Cuadrado would have cost England dearly late on, following Walker’s sloppiness in possession, and that was before Yerry Mina’s stoppage-time equaliser.

Even so, the England defence rebuffed plenty of territorial pressure in extra-time from the Colombians and are growing as a force ahead of the Sweden clash.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JULY 03: John Stones, ang3a and Harry Maguire of England celebrate victory during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Round of 16 match between Colombia and England at Spartak Stadium on July 3, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Moscow memories: John Stones and Harry Maguire celebrate.

Despite the fact Southgate’s men have failed to keep a clean sheet in four matches, at least now there is some talk and praise for the men at the back, given Harry Kane, notably, has made the headlines at the top of the pitch.

While the defence has yet to be tested against significant striking power in full flow, Jordan Pickford’s stellar showing on Tuesday night will have boosted the confidence levels of the defence. They now know they have a young goalkeeper behind them who has not only answered his critics but looks like he is on his way to becoming truly world-class.

England’s performance in the final third was lacking, as was their creativity, but they should take plenty of comfort in the fact their foundation at the back is looking increasingly watertight.

Three Lions fans are ever the optimists but there is no reason not to keep dreaming from this point onwards after finally tasting penalty shootout success.

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England's Jamie Vardy doubtful for Sweden clash with groin strain

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Jamie Vardy is a doubt for England’s World Cup quarter-final against Sweden with a groin strain.

The 31-year-old made an impressive impact as an 88th-minute substitute in the last-16 clash against Colombia on Tuesday but was conspicuous by his absence from the five spot-kick takers.

However, Press Association Sport understands the Leicester striker sustained a groin complaint.

Vardy had an injection after the match and will now be sweating for his place in Saturday’s quarter-final against the Swedes in Samara.

Southgate said that the dressing room was “like a scene from M*A*S*H” after going the distance in Moscow, where Dele Alli, Ashley Young and Kyle Walker were others that looked in discomfort.

The England manager expects to get a clearer idea about the severity of any issues by Thursday, when the team will hold a training session behind closed doors.

Only eight players trained in the pouring rain at Spartak Zelenogorsk on Wednesday, having only returned to their Repino base at around 6.30am.

Marcus Rashford was the only player to feature against Colombia among the playing group which was outnumbered by staff.

The 20-year-old forward was brought on late in extra time and was not deemed to have done enough to warrant a normal recovery session, which the other players did back at the team hotel.

Fabian Delph has yet to return to camp after heading home for the birth of his third child after the final Group G match against Belgium last Thursday.

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