France move on to the semi-finals, but still without moving up a gear. You could say they again won ugly by winning this quarter-final against Uruguay 2-0, but for once that wasn’t entirely the fault of Didier Deschamps’s perpetually prosaic tactics, in a match that often got ugly.
Renowned for making games difficult for the opposition, an unusually supine Uruguay instead just made this game difficult to watch and one to forget, with that particularly the case for their goalkeeper. Fernando Muslera’s second-half howler from what should have been an unproblematic Antoine Griezmann long-range strike secured a victory that felt inevitable after Raphael Varane’s first-half header.
This was also maybe the great frustration of the contest, and the game, as we saw the first properly tedious game of the knock-out stages. Uruguay for once just failed to do what they’re supposed to be good at, as they did not defend well, but it also meant France again didn’t need to show how good they actually are either. That remains one of the World Cup’s great questions, and maybe its decisive question given who they face in the semi-final, and given the obvious abundant quality of their squad.
N’Golo Kante and to a lesser extent Griezmann and Paul Pogba did at least step up, although Mbappe couldn’t quite follow up his wonder performance against Argentina, when he seemed to go to ever escalating heights. He was instead at the centre of the game’s nadir and got booked, here. Mbappe went down after contact with substitute Cristian Rodriguez, leading to a melee and a temporary bit of mayhem.
That was as spiky as the game got, though, and as much fight as Uruguay showed.
It was a sign of things to come and how surprisingly tepid this quarter-final initially was - how it went against any hype - that the first meaningful action actually saw the two sides’ most hyped assets inverted. That previously cast-iron Uruguayan defence that scarcely gives up a chance offered up a gift, and the brilliant Mbappe who has already taken this World Cup by storm couldn’t actually take this. Even though the teenager probably had the time to take it down and drive it past Fernando Muslera, he instead opted for a header when there didn’t seem enough power on the delivery, and the ball so oddly floated harmlessly over.
It was maybe a reminder that Mbappe still has at least some maturing to do as a player, before Varane showed he’d grown up a lot. It was at this exact stage of the 2014 competition that the Real Madrid defender was outdone for canniness for Mats Hummels to score the winner, but here he was showing how he’d come on.
Varane got above the Uruguayan defence to flick on Antoine Griezmann’s 41st-minute free-kick. That admittedly had come from the first occasion when Mbappe got to express himself with a play he definitively excels at, as he sprinted at the Uruguayan defence.
It was as symbolic as it was significant that that the South American side took what was only their second yellow card of the tournament for that, but also the second for Rodrigo Betancur.
He would miss the semi-final, but trying to get there was Uruguay’s bigger problem, not least because they now had to go against the structure of the team. They had to be proactive. They had to attack.
That might have been made easier had Martin Caceres’ own brilliant header from a set-piece made it into bottom corner, but Hugo Lloris pulled off one of the most difficult and maybe best saves of the World Cup. Diego Godin then put the chance from the parry over the bar.
A quip could be made that the great Atletico defender couldn’t go against instincts, but this was the core problem with Uruguay.
They just couldn’t shift gear, and that was all the more difficult without the change of pace that the injured Edinson Cavani usually offers,
Already stretched, it wasn’t long until Uruguay snapped and fell in, as personified by Muslera. Griezmann attempted a pot shot from distance and, although it was tame and straight at the goalkeeper, his attempt at a parry only saw the ball pitifully drop behind him and over the line.
That was France over the line, too.
Some of the Uruguayan players were in tears even before the final whistle. They’d done all they can at this World Cup. We still don’t if France have shown all they can, though.
They will surely need more in the semi-final, but they once more did enough to make it there.
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