If this Uruguay 2.0 are to scale the heights of the heroes of old then they will have to find a performance far more worthy of them after opening their World Cup with a hugely disappointing goalless stalemate with South Korea.
Diego Alonso’s new La Celeste have tantalised many in the build-up to this tournament with their blend of wise old heads and virulent new blood combining to great effect over the past 12 months, but neither element could make the key contribution here as a resolute Korea more than earned a point to start their own journey in Qatar on a positive note.
Opening games at major tournaments often tempt teams into holding what they have at the risk of losing it all, something we have already seen from the likes of the equally fancied Denmark and Croatia in recent days. But even after getting on the board, Uruguay will surely rue not emerging from this eminently winnable game against what presents to be one of the weakest of Group H opponents without victory.
It’s fair to say South Korea arrived here with tempered expectations but, perhaps buoyed by admirable support from the stands, started the stronger, pressing on to Uruguay and plugging any preferred passing lanes out from the back. Even if very much a group in transition between past and future, this is still a quality Uruguay vintage, though, and they grew into the game with Fede Valverde, so impressive for Real Madrid before the domestic season’s curtain was pulled down, beginning to show his quality. His snap volley after an excellent long ball from Jose Maria Gimenez at the back was the first real opening for either side.
Better would follow with Darwin Nunez of Liverpool somehow contriving to kick fresh air from Facundo Pellistri’s well-directed headed ball across. He thought he was in again minutes later but wasn’t found when Mathias Olivera’s pass was woefully overhit into his path.
South Korea’s best moments were, predictably, coming through Son Heung-min, the Tottenham star deemed fit to play here after being such a big doubt for this game and this tournament as a whole with a fractured eye socket sustained earlier this month. With the crowd rising and roaring his every touch, a delicious jinked run inside two from the left threatened more before a goalbound shot was blocked.
For all of Son’s pedigree it was Eui-Jo Hwang who wasted the best chance of the half and ultimately the match, however. After good work down the right channel a ball into the six-yard box was somehow contrived to be ballooned over with goalkeeper Sergio Rochet helpless. At the other end Diego Godin, 36 years young and playing in his fourth finals here, thought he’d opened the scoring himself only to see a header from a Valverde corner hit the base of the post with the keeper beaten.
Luis Suarez, another of La Celeste’s seasoned veterans, continued to toil alongside Nunez, the trademark fire in the belly and scowl on the face still present, but the almost primal burst that once so frightened defenders all over the world regretfully no longer there to be called upon. He could have few complaints when he was replaced on the hour by fellow old stager and longtime running mate Edinson Cavani.
With one striker of Liverpool fame failing to make his mark it was left to one of the current vintage to take up the mantle. As many at Anfield would no doubt attest Nunez can be a frustrating watch at times but he remains a constant bundle of energy and was again here, bursting down the left flank to the byline on one of many thrusts forward before Kim Seung-gyu got a well-timed palm in to stop a cross finding anyone waiting in sky blue.
With coach Paulo Bento, part of the Portugal side knocked out by South Korea back in 2002, sensing a famous result for his charges, Kyu-Seong Cho was thrown on up top to try to grab an elusive goal and got the red contingent expectantly on their feet with a dragged shot from range.
Nunez continued to be Uruguay’s biggest threat, curling a shot just wide of the post with Cavani inches from directing it goalwards himself. The unrelenting Valverde, lungs still outbursting everyone around him until the very last, crashed a late shot against the upright from 25 yards out before Son arrowed wide as both sides threatened to snatch three points neither truly deserved.
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