Russia’s performances in this World Cup have at times had us wondering if we can believe our eyes, but Igor Akinfeev’s problem was that he was willing to believe Luis Suarez’s and from that point, Uruguay’s opening goal after just 10 minutes, there was no way back.
The South Americans returned to the form we know they can produce in this professional, controlled win over the hosts but it was Suarez’s moment of genius, a free-kick where his eyes told Akinfeev he was going over the wall to the left before drilling it low to the right, that appeared to immediately, all too quickly, deflate Russia.
Perhaps it is because their relative success so far has been such a surprise after rather contained pre-tournament expectations, but the hosts appeared to have all belief and verve sucked out of them as soon as the opening strike hit the net.
It didn’t help that they also came up against their first half-decent opponent of the competition, but the collapse was something of a whimper.
It would be kind to Saudi Arabia to describe their display in the opening game as a disorganised rabble and the Egyptians were better but not significantly so, employing a brainless gameplan of smashing the ball long to a 5ft 9in Mohamed Salah.
Uruguay are World Cup royalty, even if their two Jules Rimet trophies were both won at a time before colour television. They are a battle-hardened unit with arguably the best central defence in the entire tournament and they were always going to be a different proposition.
Oscar Washington Tabarez tweaked the shape of his side slightly but that is something this unit are accustomed to, and they have gone into recent tournaments able to play comfortably in systems that use both three and four at the back. It gives them a versatility that Tabarez uses to exploit weaknesses in their opponents and to strengthen the core of his side. Against Russia’s willing runners, he stuck with his 4-3-1-2 but gave extra help to his defence by playing full-back Diego Laxalt in midfield to ensure the dangerous Denis Cheryshev couldn’t find 1-on-1 situations in wide areas. He needn’t have been so worried.
In fairness, Cheryshev was Russia’s main threat but his headline contribution was to deflect home a speculative shot from distance by Laxalt himself, doubling Uruguay’s lead and putting Russia in a coffin with less than a quarter of the game gone. If the casket’s lid had not yet been firmly shut, a first-half red card for Igor Smolnikov appeared to do so before the break. Two yellow cards in quick time preventing wild dreams of a historic second-half comeback.
Uruguay, as is their wont, sat deep and allowed the hosts to have possession safe in the knowledge that Diego Godin would continue to form an impregnable barrier to goal. When reunited with Jose Maria Gimenez in the knockout phase it becomes Uruguay's strongest suit, the Atletico pairing benefitting from a partnership that spans club and international football, the sort of non-verbal understanding that international coaches would kill for, but Artem Dzyuba never looked likely to test any defence today. Edinson Cavani added a third for Uruguay late in proceedings but by that point most of the partisan crowd were already staring at their phones, plastic flags discarded.
This is a team and coach that has beaten top-level European competition in the past, notably Italy and England in 2014, and they will have to do that again if they even want to reach the last eight.
Those future opponents will provide sterner tests for Uruguay but they have done all they could after being drawn into the weakest group in the tournament - winning all three games and not conceding a goal.
The real World Cup starts now for them, though Russia might only have just discovered the real tournament... and they didn't like it so much.
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