On ‘Super Saturday’, we waved goodbye to the world’s two big footballing superstars. In what many experts are saying is a changing of the guard, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi departed stage left, possibly for the final time at a World Cup. Their ‘executioners’ were the Uruguayans and the French, and on Friday these two meet in what promises to be a firecracker of a quarter-final. What makes this clash doubly mouth-watering is the clash of styles: the free-flowing dynamism of the French versus the old-school pragmatism of the Uruguayans.
Uruguay’s win over the Portuguese on Saturday evening was one that found approval with those who hark back to the days of 4-4-2 and who see grit, determination and bottle as equivalents to skill, flair and technique. It was a back-to-basics performance that ticked every footballing box, with Edinson Cavani scoring twice as they hammered a nail in Cristiano’s World Cup dream. Alongside his strike partner – Barcelona’s Luis Suarez – Cavani, currently with Paris Saint-Germain, ran the Portuguese defence ragged with a display of energy, persistence and, most crucially, two goals of the highest quality.
The first was one of the most glorious 1-2s you’re ever likely to see, with Cavani sweeping the ball crossfield from right to left, to find his strike partner Suarez before continuing his run into the box. The Barcelona man then took a couple of touches before cutting inside and sending in a dipping, in-swinging cross, which Cavani met full-on at the far post. The ball whistled past Rui Patrício in the Portuguese goal before he had time to move. It was scintillating stuff and a classic example of how using twin strikers can still work, even in these days of lone strikers and false 9s.
But Cavani’s second was arguably even better. With the Portuguese having pulled level through Pepe’s free header, direct from a corner, the South Americans responded with nerve and nous, and it was via route one that their second goal arrived. A long, downfield kick from keeper Muslera was not properly dealt with and fell to Bentancur, who slid a beautifully weighted pass into the path of Cavani. His first-time strike with the inside of his right foot was a thing of beauty and curled past Rui Patricio almost in slow motion. It was the finish of a striker at the very top of his game.
The only disappointment for Uruguay, and for Cavani himself, was that he limped off the field late on, which denied him the chance of a hat-trick and also put a question mark over his availability for the game with France. Early suggestions, that he could be out of action for the rest of the tournament, have since been dismissed but he looks to be in possible rather than probable territory for a starting place. If he can’t make it, that will be a massive blow for the South Americans.
Yet there is much more to the Uruguayans beyond having two world-class and in-form strikers. Pepe’s header was the first goal they have conceded in the tournament. With a back-four that is led by the indomitable figure of Diego Godin, they have players willing to put their bodies on the line for their team and country, and the French will find breaking them down a very different task compared to the ease with which they cut through the flaky Argentine defence.
For their part, however, the French come into this game with their confidence sky-high. A thrilling 4-3 win over a Messi-led Argentina catapulted them onto front and back pages across the world and also thrust young striker Kylian Mbappe – a team-mate of Cavani’s at PSG – onto centre stage.
The 19-year-old was simply too much for Argentina’s creaking defence to handle, and those of a certain age will have drawn parallels with how an 18-year-old Michael Owen also tore an Argentinian defence to shreds for England in St Etienne back in 1998. The precocious Mbappe could prove to be the matchwinner for France once again on Friday afternoon.
Mouth-watering Tie to Be Decided By Fine Margins
Ultimately, it was Mbappe’s two goals that helped carve him a niche in French footballing history – it’s a result that will be long remembered for a whole host of reasons – but the warning signs were there for the South Americans from the opening minutes, when his pace caused them all sorts of problems. It was his speed and directness that led to France’s opener in the 13th minute when his slaloming run from half-way was ended illegally just inside the penalty box by Marcos Rojo. The spot-kick was dispatched by Griezmann with ease and the die was cast.
In fairness, the Argentinians did respond and, through sheer doggedness and a few moments of brilliance, they somehow managed to engineer themselves a 2-1 lead, but they never looked comfortable and it was no surprise when the French pulled level again. For once, Mbappe was not involved in the move, instead, it was right-back Benjamin Pavard who popped up at the perfect moment to smash an unstoppable, angled half-volley into the back of the Argentinian net.
From thereon in it was the Mbappe show and two stunning finishes – one from close range, the other from a sweeping team move – sent the French to the edge of the last eight; the Argentinians looking a shadow of the side that, inspired by Messi, went all the way to the 2014 final. A late header by Sergio Aguero made for a nervous final couple of minutes for the French, but it was a deserved win for Deschamp’s men and the Uruguayans will be acutely aware of the threat they now pose.
The French have strength in depth, no question, and one quick look at the list of players who didn’t make their final 23 displays clearly the quality Deschamps has at his disposal. The French manager’s problem, at least until now, has been how to mould this team of high-quality individuals into a cohesive unit. He also suffered from having to lean too heavily on Griezmann for goals. But, judging by events of the last fortnight, both may no longer be issues.
The emergence of Mbappe has been one massive bonus, of course, but so too the way their young team have shown a togetherness and spirit that has been missing from the French national team for some time. They play as a unit and play for each other and this, coupled with obvious technical excellence, makes them a formidable opponent.
The Uruguayans, whose squad is underpinned with experience rather than youth, will be hoping to ‘get amongst’ the young Frenchmen and not allow them to settle into any kind of rhythm. Led by Godin, they will endeavour to make the game disjointed and bitty and use whatever means necessary to disrupt the Gallic flow. Whether they succeed or not will go a long way towards determining the outcome. They will also look to Suarez to chase every lost cause going and start their defending from the front, as well as expecting him to gobble up any half-chances on offer.
If, on the other hand, the French can settle and get the ball to Griezemann and Mbappe in dangerous areas then, however resolute and organised the Uruguay defence, they will fancy their chances. Mbappe’s pace will frighten them and may tempt them to drop a few metres deeper, something that will play into French hands. But don’t expect there to be a hatful of goals – another 4-3 is not going to happen – and with Uruguay’s miserly defence unlikely to give France the time and space afforded to them by Argentina, a narrow French win in the second half is a strong bet.