Uruguay can clinch a spot in the round of 16 and turn Group A of the World Cup into a showdown with host Russia for first if it can defeat a reeling Saudi Arabia side Wednesday at Rostov-on-Don.
La Celeste left it for late in their opener against Egypt, getting a towering header from central defender Jose Maria Gimenez in the 89th minute to post a 1-0 victory over the African side missing star striker Mohamed Salah on Friday. The host Sbornaya have already taken the maximum six points from their first two matches after defeating the Pharaohs 3-1 on Tuesday, so a victory by the two-time world champions would secure a knockout round spot for the third consecutive World Cup.
Saudi Arabia would mathematically stay alive with a draw in this contest, but after its 5-0 loss to Russia on Thursday to open the World Cup which was also the most lopsided opening match scoreline since 1954, it would not do Juan Antonio Pizzi’s side any good. The Green Falcons would still have to make up that chasm in goal difference in its group finale versus Egypt and need Russia to help by beating Uruguay.
The Green Falcons were constantly overrun through the midfield against the host country, then dug themselves a deeper hole by conceding two goals in second-half stoppage time. Saudi Arabia carries an 11-match winless streak (0-2-9) in World Cup play into this contest since its 1-0 victory over Belgium to conclude group play in 1994 and has been outscored 32-7 in those contests.
LAST TIME OUT
With striker Luis Suarez suffering through a sub-par performance and partner Edinson Cavani doing likewise until the final 10 minutes in which he had one shot parried and a second cannon off the crossbar, Uruguay needed a set piece to create separation from a dogged Egypt side.
Gimenez did well to rise above Pharaohs central defender Ahmed Hegazy to meet Carlos Sanchez’s cross from the right as he drilled his header inside the right post from eight yards. Uruguay finished with 16 shots total, including five that went on target, and also worked its way into five corner kicks.
Saudi Arabia too often found itself hemmed on the sidelines and turning the ball open trying to move to the middle of the pitch, where Russia constantly forced turnovers before running to daylight in the middle third.
The Green Falcons failed to put any of their six shots on target, coming closest when Mohammad Al-Sahlawai’s header in the 20th minute was deflected wide of the left post with the outcome still in doubt at 1-0. Saudi Arabia had possession 60 percent of the match, but it meant little as there was a complete lack of buildup lacking value of maintaining that possession.
Entering this match trailing Russia by six on goal difference, Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez likely will stay pat for this match, but he could also reward Sanchez for his winning assist by starting him wide right as La Celeste will push for goals in ruthless fashion.
Pizzi is coaching for his job after the Saudi Arabian Football Federation was left red-faced after the hiding the side took. While there will not be a repeat from 1998 in which Carlos Alberto Parreira was fired after a 4-0 loss to France in group play, it would not be surprising to see Pizzi make a raft of changes to his first XI or at least have two of his forward midfielders deployed in more reserved roles.
Tabarez made a double switch on the hour, introducing both Sanchez and Cristian Rodriguez, with youngster Lucas Torreira coming on just before Gimenez’s goal. Having been with this team through three World Cup cycles, Tabarez clearly has the pulse of this side and came through with flying colors Friday.
Like everything else in the opening match, Pizzi’s three switches failed to generate any type of momentum, with Hattan Bahebri given an 18-minute runout after Russia scored its third goal.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Uruguay – Luis Suarez (F)
The Barcelona striker will be eager to atone for his profligacy versus Egypt as he had one scoring chance stopped and another two foiled at his own feet. Suarez is also making his 100th appearance with La Celeste in this game, and there would be no better way to celebrate than adding to his already record haul of goals with at least No. 52.
Saudi Arabia – Yasir Al-Shahrani (D)
One of the few Green Falcons players who had the occasional bright spot against Russia, Al-Shahrani will have his work cut out for him once more as he faces a high pair of quality strikers in Cavani and Suarez. Given Suarez’s preference of attacking from the left, Al-Shahrani could be in for a torrid time versus the Barcelona forward.
Per Ladbrokes, Uruguay is a rightfully heavy favorite with 2-11 odds, while Saudi Arabia is a 14-1 longshot. A draw appears equally unlikely in oddsmakers’ eyes at 11-2. Cavani and Suarez are joint-favorites to take the first goal at 2-1 odds, with Maxi Gomez are surprising third at 3-1. Nine La Celeste players are listed ahead of Al-Sahlawi, who is getting 12-1 odds alongside Muhannad Asiri to give the Green Falcons a 1-0 lead.
How much pride does Saudi Arabia have? That may be the question that determines if Uruguay pick its number for goals or have to break down the Green Falcons. La Celeste are a more talented team than host Russia, and after breaking down offensively for much of the first 80 minutes against Egypt, it would seem highly unlikely a second match of struggles in the final third will occur.
This is a match in which everyone should be happy for Uruguay: Fernando Muslera should record another clean sheet, Cavani and Suarez should each bag a goal and everyone stays out of yellow card danger ahead of a final group match that determines who finishes atop Group A.
It may take longer for Uruguay to break Saudi Arabia down given the Asian side should be more compact after having been turned over in the midfield repeatedly by Russia, but the prospects of given lethal finishers Suarez and Cavani a half-step of space they can ruthlessly exploit in the final third is a cause of concern.
Uruguay likely will not make up all the difference in goals ahead of its showdown with Russia, but it will put a sizable dent in it with a 4-0 victory.
Uruguay will complete group play Monday against the World Cup host in Samara, while Saudi Arabia will do likewise versus Egypt in Volgograd.