There are no secrets and friendships when club teammates turn rivals for country at the World Cup.
Such will be the case Friday when France striker Antoine Griezmann faces Uruguay central defenders and Atletico Madrid teammates Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez with a spot in the World Cup semifinals at stake in Nizhy Novogorod.
Griezmann, Godin and Gimenez are not the only sets of teammates who will be wearing contrasting shades of blue. A pair of PSG forwards — breakout French teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe and cagey Uruguayan Edinson Cavani — will also put club loyalties aside, as will Cavani’s strike partner Luis Suarez and his Barcelona teammate Lucas Hernandez.
A potential reunion of a fourth set of club teammates — Juventus midfielders Blaise Matuidi and Rodrigo Bentancur — was scuppered when Matuidi picked up his second yellow card of the World Cup in France’s rollercoaster 4-3 win over Argentina in the round of 16 and will serve his one-match ban Friday.
Griezmann, who broke in with Spain’s La Liga with Real Sociedad as an 18-year-old under Uruguayan coach Martin Lasarte and then-teammate Carlos Bueno, developed a deep affinity for the football culture of La Celeste during his time there. It continued at Atletico, where he, Godin and Gimenez have been the cornerstones of a Spanish side that has turned the duopoly of power in Spain between Barcelona and Real Madrid into the occasional triumvirate.
“They all play together, for each other. It is beautiful because I experience it every day at Atletico. I love it,” Griezmann told ESPN. It is [Edinson] Cavani’s style who defends and attack[s], with Paris like with Uruguay. In the way I think, he is the best striker. He makes 10,000 runs for the ball, never gives up and only needs one or two touches to shoot in the box.
“What makes me Uruguayan is that I have the style of Diego [Godin] and Cavani, who give everything, never give up and make the efforts for their teammates.”
Griezmann has not scored in the run of play thus far — though he does have two penalties in as many attempts — but he remains dangerous because of his intelligent runs underneath lone French striker Olivier Giroud. But after the 19-year-old Mbappe unleashed his frightening pace in tormenting Argentina, there could be opportunities for Griezmann to get the better of his teammates as Les Bleus seek their first World Cup semifinal appearance since winning it all as hosts in 1998.
Godin and Gimenez, however, have been as close to a shutdown pair as it gets at the World Cup. Uruguay has conceded just one goal in four matches at Russia, which came in its 2-1 victory over Portugal in the round of 16, but La Celeste were practically airtight save Pepe’s header. They effectively shut down and frustrated Cristiano Ronaldo while Cavani bracketed Portugal’s goal with his second and third markers of this World Cup.
Cavani, though, was forced off with a calf injury in the 74th minute, and his status for this match is in doubt after missing practice Monday and Tuesday. He and Suarez have accounted for five of the seven goals La Celeste have scored, but Suarez insists his team can cope without Cavani as two-time champion Uruguay look to make the semifinals for the second time in three World Cups.
“He’s essential, because of the kind of player he is, for what he has shown in every match he has played for the national team, not to mention in the present moment,” Suarez said at a news conference. “The two goals he scored the other day, the team work he has in general, his physical exertion… all of it is important.
“This is a World Cup and Edi’s form is very important, but there are players who can do it in the same way, and we hope even better than him. Things don’t depend on just one player. Uruguay have shown we depend on collective work on the pitch.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE
June 15 — Uruguay 1, Egypt 0 (Gimenez 89′)
June 20 — Uruguay 1, Saudi Arabia 0 (Suarez 23′)
June 25 — Uruguay 3, Russia 0 (Suarez 10′, Cheryshev 23′ (og), Cavani 90′)
June 30 — Uruguay 2, Portugal 1 (Cavani 7′, Pepe 55′, Cavani 62′)
June 16 — France 2, Australia 1 (Griezmann 58′ (PK), Jedinak 62′ (PK), Behich 81′ (og))
June 21 — France 1, Peru 0 (Mbappe 34′)
June 26 — France 0, Denmark 0
June 30 — France 4, Argentina 3 (Griezmann 13′ (PK), Di Maria 41′, Mercado 48′, Pavard 57′, Mbappe 64′, Mbappe 68′)
With Matuidi on the sidelines, France coach Didier Deschamps likely will turn to Corentin Tolisso to pair in midfield with N’Golo Kante. Otherwise, it should be status quo for Les Bleus, with Mbappe, Griezmann and Paul Pogba underneath Giroud and the same back four of Hernandez, Benjamin Pavard, Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane.
After using a three-man backline against Portugal, La Celeste manager Oscar Tabarez likely will revert to his traditional 4-4-2 set-up. Right now, it seems more likely Cavani will only be available off the bench for this match if at all, which means Cristian Stuani likely will get the call to partner with Suarez up front.
Guillermo Varela should be restored to right back and Carlos Sanchez in front of him in right midfield. Diego Laxalt may have done enough to earn a second consecutive start at left midfield, with the hope his pace will allow him to neutralize some of Mbappe’s marauding runs.
INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES
Matuidi is serving his yellow-card ban in this match, but Deschamps should have everyone else available for selection for France. Les Bleus have four players — Giroud, Tolisso, Pogba and Pavard — sitting on yellows, and a second would keep them out of the semifinals.
Tabarez will be sweating on the fitness of Cavani right until he has to hand in the lineup sheet for Uruguay, and Suarez gave La Celeste a further scare Tuesday when he limped off for a portion of practice before resuming training.
For all the talk of Uruguay’s physical play of years past, the cynical play has not carried over to Russia. Bentancur is the only La Celeste player to be booked through four matches, and that yellow card gets wiped away with a victory.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
France — Kylian Mbappe (F)
What will the teenage sensation do for an encore? After becoming just the second teenager along with Pele to score two goals in a World Cup knockout game, Mbappe has shown all those nine-figure transfer fees attached to him on any potential move are well justified.
That said, he has not faced a back four as solid as this quartet in Russia. Mbappe may be best suited in a slightly deeper role on the flank so he can build up speed in getting past Uruguay’s midfielders before taking on the defenders since La Celeste are likely to sit in a low block.
Uruguay — Fernando Muslera (GK)
Muslera has not had much work in his four matches, stopping 11 of 12 shots while turning in three clean sheets and becoming the sixth player on La Celeste’s roster to reach 100 caps. But the Galatasaray keeper should expect a busy night in Nizhny Novogorod because France will create quality chances regardless of how disciplined Uruguay is defensively.
Muslera has shown he can be flustered as he nearly gifted Portugal an equalizer last match by failing to cleanly catch a cross and fumbling it forwards and getting caught far out of position before A Selecao spurned the chance. Those types of mistakes cannot happen against Les Bleus, who have multiple opportunistic attackers who will punish such gaffes.
WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD
1966 (England) GS — Uruguay 2, France 1 (De Bourgoing 15′ (PK), Rocha 26′, Cortes 31′)
2002 (South Korea/Japan) GS — Uruguay 0, France 0
2010 (South Africa) GS — Uruguay 0, France 0
This will be the first time the sides have meet in the knockout stages of the World Cup, with Uruguay unbeaten in the three previous meetings. Les Bleus failed to advance out of group play in all three of those World Cups, though the scoreless draw in 2010 preceded their infamous meltdown in South Africa after Raymond Domenech roiled the locker room by sending home Nicolas Anelka.
The teams last met in a 2013 friendly in Montevideo, with Uruguay recording a 1-0 victory on a goal by Suarez. The teams have played to four draws in seven all-time matches, with Uruguay winning twice and France posting its only win in 1985.
Per Ladbrokes, France is an even-money favorite, while Uruguay is listed with 16/5 odds. The odds of the match ending in a draw and going to penalty kicks are 21/10. Both teams have 31/20 odds to score one goal in the match, but Uruguay is getting 11/10 odds on failing to score. The oddsmakers feel Les Bleus are more likely to score two or more goals (29/20) than they are to fail to score (12/5).
Even with his calf injury, Cavani is joint-second with Griezmann and Mbappe to be the first goal-scorer of the match at 9/2 as all three players trail Suarez at 4/1. Giroud is listed at 5/1, while Stauni is currently listed at 15/2 as bettors wait on Cavani’s status.
After three meandering matches in group play, the France that tore through Argentina was the France everyone expected to see in Russia. It was a perfect combination of facing a top-heavy and undisciplined opponent which preferred open play. The latter will definitely not hold true with La Celeste, as well-drilled a side there is among the remaining eight in Russia.
Uruguay is going to sit back into this game since it does not have the pace through the middle to keep up with Mbappe. This is going to be a match where Les Bleus may play Route One football to Giroud for knockdown passes to Griezmann and Pogba, or depending on how deep La Celeste’s blocks of four are, let Pogba try to unlock that defense at the top of he final third.
While much of Uruguay’s offense flows through Suarez and Cavani, if the PSG star is absent, it may cause a ripple effect in Tabarez’s lineup. In addition to Stuani being in the first XI, Lucas Torreira could get his second straight start at Sanchez’s expense.
La Celeste did not have much offensive beyond Cavani’s two goals — they had only one other shot on target and let Portugal have more than 60 percent possession. That will continue against France as Uruguay will be selective about when to hit out on he counter.
The biggest difference in the round of 16 victories is one gets the sense France still has another level it can hit, while Uruguay is maxing out its capabilities. That ceiling comes down significantly if Cavani cannot play the full 90 or even 120 minutes, and that difference may loom large as the separation between the teams since France has quality to spare and confidence to burn.
PREDICTION: FRANCE 2, URUGUAY 1
The winner of this match will play the winner of the Brazil-Belgium match Tuesday in St. Petersburg.