Champions League Match Day 4 Preview — Juventus (3-0-0, 9, +6) vs. Manchester United (1-1-1, 4, +2)

Juventus can wrap up first place in Group H of the Champions League with two matches to spare if they can complete a home-and-home sweep of Manchester United on Wednesday in Italy.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Bianconeri have a 100 percent rate through the first three group matches and are five points clear of closest pursuers Manchester United (1-1-1), who are on four points and two ahead of Valencia for second.

Juventus took command of the group with a convincing 1-0 victory at Old Trafford a fortnight ago, riding a 17th-minute goal by Paulo Dybala as the Italian side controlled most of the match by subduing United’s offence and controlling possession for more than 60 percent of the match.

The victory started a current three-match win streak for Juve, who have yet to lose in 14 matches across all competitions (13-1-0) and are one of two unbeaten clubs left in the top five European leagues along with German side Borussia Dortmund. Technically, Chelsea have not lost a match but did begin their season with a loss to Manchester City in England’s traditional Community Shield opener.

Juventus remained six points clear of Inter Milan and Napoli in Serie A with a 3-1 victory over Cagliari on Saturday. Dybala opened the scoring just 43 seconds into the match, and after Juve allowed an equaliser, they were gifted an own goal by Cagliari midfielder Filip Bradaric in the 38th minute that restored their one-goal advantage.

Cristiano Ronaldo, who was honoured for scoring his 400th club goal in Europe before the match, set up Juan Cuadrado’s insurance marker on 87 minutes. While Ronaldo leads Juve in scoring with seven goals in all competitions — they have all come in Serie A matches — Dybala has done his damage in Champions League, where he has netted four of his six goals. Five of the Argentina’s last six shots that have been on target have ended in the back of the net.

“I’m happy we got all three points tonight and that’s all that matters,” Cuadrado told Juve’s official website. “We’re not setting any limits. We want to improve every with game. We know that’s what we have to do if we want to grow as a team.”

Juventus’ side Saturday looked fairly similar to the first XI who played at Old Trafford. There were three exceptions with left-side defenders Mehdi Benatia and Mattia De Sciglio starting in the place of Giorgio Chiellini and Alex Sandro, while Douglas Costa started up front over Cuadrado, who entered Saturday’s match at halftime when Costa was sidelined with an adductor injury.

Another injury concern for Juve is midfielder Blaise Matuidi, who came off late over the weekend with a hip problem. Mario Mandzukic, who missed the match at Old Trafford with an ankle injury suffered right before the contest, is not likely to play, though he has been practicing.

Manchester United kicked off a hectic week heading into the international break by rallying for a 2-1 victory at Bournemouth to move into seventh place in the Premier League behind the Cherries on goal difference. Marcus Rashford was able to corral a cross from Paul Pogba just above the six-yard box and beat Asmir Begovic in the 92nd minute for the match-winner.

The victory, though hid a lot of blemishes for Jose Mourinho’s side, who were nearly run out of Dean Court in the first half-hour as Bournemouth set a torrid pace and took the lead inside the first quarter-hour. David De Gea, as he has done so many times already this season, kept the deficit manageable with some timely saves before Anthony Martial, continued his purple patch of scoring with an equaliser before the interval. It was his fourth goal in five matches across all competitions.

“It wasn’t just the start [that was bad], it was all of the first half. At half time, I thought I was the luckiest manager in the Premier League, to be at 1-1 in a half in which it should be 5-2 or 6-2 [to Bournemouth],” Mourinho said post-match. “We were really lucky because we were really poor. Defensively awful, absolutely awful, and when I say defensively, I don’t just look to my defenders but to the whole team as a team. We didn’t start pressing up, the work we did during the week. I felt like people watching this game don’t believe how hard we have worked this week, our pressure on this opponent in the first half was a disaster.

“Then, in the second half, it was exactly the opposite. We created a lot of chances, we pressed higher, with much more aggression, intensity and intention. We created lots of chances, we deserved to score before the 92nd minute. In the end, we got the goal which gave us the important points.”

Mourinho must choose among Martial, Rashford, Alexis Sanchez and Juan Mata among his attacking front three since Romelu Lukaku is not likely to be available for this match. The Belgium international, who was dropped from the starting XI in United’s win over Everton and has gone nine matches without a goal, was a late scratch at Bournemouth due to a muscle strain suffered in training.

Sanchez made his first start since United’s scoreless draw against Valencia more than a month ago. Mourinho’s high-pressure week concludes Sunday with the Manchester derby at the Etihad against reigning champions City, who are 10 points clear of United through 11 league matches.

Captain Nemanja Matic caused a stir ahead of the match when he announced he would continue to not wear the poppy, which was worn by Premier League teams last weekend and throughout this week ahead of Remembrance Sunday, which also marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

Matic, a native of Yugsolavia who did not wear the poppy in the victory at Bournemouth, said in a social media post the poppy “is only a reminder of an attack that I felt personally as a frightened 12-year- old boy living in Vrelo, as my country was devastated by the bombing of Serbia in 1999. I do not want to undermine the poppy as a symbol of pride or offend anyone; however, we are all a product of our own upbringing and this is a personal choice for the reasons outlined.”

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Juventus are decided favourites to retain their 100 percent record as they are installed as 4/7 favourites. Manchester United are 5/1 underdogs to win their second road match in group play. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 14/5, a result which would keep United on the inside track for second place in the group.

Juve have 8/5 favourites to win with more than 2.5 goals scored, but a 2-0 or 1-0 scoreline is not far off with 5/2 odds. A draw that finished with no goals or two has 18/5 odds, while a United victory on either side of the 2.5 threshold offers 10/1 odds.

Ronaldo leads the way for first-goal options at 3/1, narrowly ahead of reverse fixture scorer Dybala (4/1) and Mandzukic (4/1). All told, eight Juve players are listed before scanning down the toteboard to find Lukaku as the top United option at 9/1, but even he is below the “no goal-scorer” choice at 8/1.

Ronaldo is an almost even-money pick to bag a goal over the course of 90 minutes at 11/10, with Dybala (7/5) narrowly edging out Mandzukic (6/4) for second. Federico Bernardschi and Douglas Costa are 2/1 and 23/10, respectively, with Lukaku again United’s top option at 3/1. Rashford and Martial lag just behind the Belgian at 10/3 and 7/2, respectively.

PREDICTION

After the 1-0 loss at Old Trafford, Mourinho pretty much conceded the group to Juventus, and as The Times reported, said “we knew when the draw was made that we’d be fighting Valencia for second place in the group.”

So even though United played one of their more impressive 45 minutes of the season at Bournemouth to overturn a deficit — though it came after a half-hour of insipid play — everyone knows what’s coming to Turin.

The bus. And not just any bus. It’s going to be one of those big, shiny double-deckers that England made famous as United look to strangle this match for a point before deciding if they have enough to try a smash-and-grab raid in the final quarter-hour if things go according to plan. In theory, this is not an unwise maneuver since Mourinho has seen his side play a full 90-minute match so few times this term.

Add in a lead striker in Lukaku who is both injured and currently ineffective, and you have the makings of a 4-3-3 that could very well morph into a 4-1-4-1 set-up in which Matic shields the back four and Sanchez will be left to his industry up front to try and find a moment of magic. It also means Juan Mata likely retains his spot on the right wing and Rashford comes off the bench, though Ander Herrera could be a lively insertion into the midfield with Pogba after a solid effort off the bench versus Bournemouth.

The biggest problem with this is Juventus have pace to burn on the flanks, whether it be right back Joao Cancelo bombing forward or Ronaldo using his still staggering straight-line speed to give defenders nightmares and twist Ashley Young into a pretzel. He and Dybala have a very underrated comprehension of playing off each other and are not locked into fix areas of space in the final third. That is how Dybala got his goal at Old Trafford, and without De Gea’s quality, there would have been more.

United are still a mess at times in front of De Gea, evidenced by the first half against Bournemouth. But this is also the type of match that makes Mourinho, well, Mourinho. There is a reason United have conceded just four times in their last 10 European away matches. And given they go right from one high-powered club in Juve to another in their eternal rivals City this weekend, the whiteboard and drilling for these two contests probably started at least a month ago.

Juve are likely going to have more than the 60 percent possession they enjoyed at Old Trafford, the issue is where United cede it to them. Lindelof and Smalling must be massive for this defence-first strategy to work, and too many times it has failed to deliver. The resiliency United have shown after getting punched in the mouth has been impressive, but one wonders if they have taken too many shots in recent weeks to recover from a haymaker from a quality foe.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Juventus 2, Manchester United 0.

Tottenham Hotspur (0-1-2, 1, -3) vs. PSV Eindhoven (0-1-2, 1, -5)
Red Star Belgrade (0-1-2, 1, -9) vs. Liverpool (2-0-1, 6, +4)
Manchester City (2-0-1, 6, +4) vs. Shakhtar Donetsk (0-2-1, 2, -3)

Champions League Match Day 3 Preview — Manchester United (1-1-0, 4, +3) vs. Juventus (2-0-0, 6, +5)

It has been nearly five years since the last time Cristiano Ronaldo faced his former team, eliminating Manchester United in the round of 16 in the Champions League with a goal at Old Trafford for Real Madrid.

Though the only thing at stake in Tuesday’s Group H clash in England is first place, interests of the football world and emotions for a newly minted Juventus version of Ronaldo are running high ahead of just his second contest at Old Trafford since leaving for the Bernabeu nearly a decade ago.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Ronaldo contributed to United’s prestige in his six seasons with Manchester United, winning three Premier League titles and the 2008 Champions League trophy while rising to superstardom. But at Real Madrid, that superstardom became all-encompassing and omnipresent as he helped Los Blancos to two La Liga titles and four Champions League titles — including the last three.

His first season with Juventus has gotten off to a fairly strong start, though this will be just his second Champions League contest with the Bianconeri. Ronaldo was given a red card in Juve’s opening victory for apparently pulling the hair of Valencia defender Jeison Murillo last month and missed their 3-0 victory over Young Boys earlier this month. It was the first Champions League red card in 154 matches for Ronaldo, who has the all-time scoring mark in Europe’s top club competition with 120 goals.

“It is special for me to return to Manchester,” Ronaldo said at Monday’s news conference. “Here I have many memories of victories and affection, and in particular with Sir Alex Ferguson, to whom I send a big hug. He is a person who helped me so much.”

While some of the talk has been about Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford, much of the news conference was dominated by an allegation of rape in the summer of 2009 while in the United States. The story came back into the spotlight a month ago following an investigative article by the German newspaper Der Spiegel, and while Ronaldo did not directly address the allegations, he also struck a tone of defiance that implies he has been able to compartmentalize what takes place on the pitch and off it.

“We did the statement two weeks ago, if I’m not wrong,” Ronaldo said when pressed about the issue. “I am glad [about how it progresses]. Of course, I’m not going to lie in this situation, I’m very happy. My lawyers, they are confident and of course I am, too. The most important is I enjoy the football, I enjoy my life. The rest, I have people who take care of my life. Of course, the truth is always coming in the first position [eventually]. So, I’m good.”

It is hard to argue with him based on his recent performances for Juventus. The Portugal international has five goals and three assists in his last six Serie A matches and scored in Juve’s 1-1 tie versus Genoa on Saturday that marked the first time in nine matches they dropped points (8-1-0). The Bianconeri are the only unbeaten team in Serie A and are four points clear of Napoli through nine matches as they seek an eighth consecutive scudetto.

While Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic have taken care of the offence by scoring 13 of Juve’s 24 goals, Juve will be without centre-forward Mandzukic, who sprained his ankle in training and did not make the trip. Douglas Costa appears to be the most likely candidate to lead the line, though the Brasil international’s last Champions League goal came with Manchester United in the 2016-17 season.

Juve’s defence, meanwhile, have been their usual stingy selves, conceding just six goals in 11 matches across all competitions. That is even with the changing of the guard between the sticks from warhorse Gianluigi Buffon to Wojceich Szczesny, who has five clean sheets.

The Poland international has plenty of experience facing Manchester United from his days as the No. 1 with Arsenal, but he has not experienced too much success. Szczesny is 2-2-5 with two shutouts against United, but it also should be noted that eight of the 15 goals he has conceded in those matches came in an 8-2 drubbing at Old Trafford in 2011.

Dybala was held out of the starting XI versus Genoa to nurse a knee injury, making a 20-minute cameo late, but had a hat trick in Juve’s win over Young Boys. The only other player in Juve’s regular rotation to not make the trip was midfielder Emre Can, who has been recovering from a thyroid problem.

Manchester United are still trying to find themselves, but some of the fight that has been lacking from the England powerhouse was on display in a 2-2 draw versus Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Always a charged atmosphere when manager Jose Mourinho returns to his former stomping grounds where he won three Premier League titles, United nearly escaped London with three points before a goal at the death by Ross Barkley relegated them to splitting them.

Anthony Martial accounted for both goals with a second-half brace, but it was the forward play of United in the second half that generated optimism for this contest. In some ways, it was similar to their 3-2 win over Newcastle United prior to the international break in which they overcame a two-goal deficit in the final 20 minutes, but that fight needs to be present for all 90 minutes as opposed to just fits and spurts.

“I think the first half we just started slow,” United striker Romelu Lukaku said at Monday’s news conference. “No initiative on the ball and no movement. But then in the second half we did everything we said we wanted to do in the first half. We do it always in the second half and that’s why we come back to get great results. But now the key is to start games how we start them in the second half, and maintain it as much as we can.”

United’s win over Newcastle is their only one over the last six matches in all competitions (1-4-1), but they have more clean sheets in Champions League play (2) than domestically (1). Mourinho has injury concerns as wingers Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard have been ruled out of this match along with midfielders Marouane Fellaini and Scott McTominay.

The lack of bodies forced Mourinho to use a 4-2-3-1 formation against Chelsea, something that could be replicated in this match with Juan Mata as the more forward playmaker and Pogba as a holding one alongside Nemanja Matic.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Juventus are 29/20 favourites to leave Old Trafford with all three points and a stranglehold on the group. United are 2/1 underdogs to claim a victory and the group lead ahead of the return engagement in Turin, and the odds of the teams splitting the points and leaving Juve ahead on goal difference halfway through group play are 21/10.

Despite Juve being listed as favourites, the match result with the lowest odds is a low-scoring draw at 11/4. A Juventus win over 2.5 goals has 10/3 odds, while one under 2.5 goals is 19/5. Manchester United posting a win with more than 2.5 goals checks in at 19/4, while a low-scoring victory for the hosts is slightly longer at 9/2.

Ronaldo is the oddsmakers’ favourite to score the first goal of the match in his return to Old Trafford at 4/1, followed by Dybala (5/1). Lukaku rounds out the top three while serving as United’s top option (11/2), with Marcus Rashford and Fernando Bernardeschi completing the top five at 13/2. Despite his brace at Chelsea, Martial has substantially long odds to make it 1-0 for the hosts at 8/1, which is behind the game ending without a goal-scorer (7/1) and teammate Alexis Sanchez and Juve’s Douglas Costa (15/2).

Ronaldo and Dybala also lead the line to score at any point in the match at 6/4 and 19/10 odds, respectively, while Lukaku is a 2/1 pick to run counter to his flat-track bully reputation and score for United. Rashford is a 5/2 choice to score while both Martial and Sanchez have 14/5 odds. On Juve’s side, Costa weighs in at 11/4, slightly behind Bernardeschi at 12/5.

PREDICTION

Based on United’s last two results and how they got there, the question of whether they can put together a complete 90 minutes remains the biggest issue facing them. If they play with the verve and nous of the second half they played against Chelsea, this could be a rollicking affair versus Ronaldo and Juventus. With the likelihood of Antonio Valencia at right back, though, there is a bit of a nod to defence with the realisation it will be a group effort to contain Ronaldo on the left.

It remains to be seen just how much of an impact Mandzukic’s absence makes considering he is second on Juve with three assists. The Croatia international is the grit between the smooth operators Ronaldo and Dybala, though the latter may not be 100 percent for this match. That means most of the playmaking duties will fall to midfielder Miralem Pjanic, who is plenty capable of the role considering he has two assists in Champions League play and four overall.

While Martial is in excellent form for United, Lukaku could very well be the difference between zero points and any for Mourinho’s side. The Belgium international has not scored in his last seven matches for the club and all four of his markers have come in league play. He will be going up against the well-seasoned tandem of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini in central defence for Juve, which means it could be a long, frustrating night for Lukaku.

in the end, though, it always comes down to Ronaldo. United have no real good options at right back between Valencia and Ashley Young when it comes to containing Ronaldo’s pace, which means Matic and Chris Smalling must be cognizant of where the superstar is at all times, especially when he makes his darting runs into space since his straight-line speed must be respected.

If second-half United decide to play from the opening whistle, they should emerge with no worse than a draw. But expecting that to happen is pure speculation, and Juventus right now appear to be in too good a form to be slowed down at the moment.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester United 0, Juventus 2.

OTHER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH DAY 3 PREVIEWS:

Shakhtar Donetsk (0-2-0) vs. Manchester City (1-0-1)
PSV Eindhoven (0-0-2) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (0-0-2)
Liverpool (1-0-1) vs. Red Star Belgrade (0-1-1)

World Cup Recap Match 50 — Uruguay 2, Portugal 1 (June 30)

Edinson Cavani completed his brace with an exquisite strike in the 62nd minute as Uruguay successfully held out against Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal in the final half-hour to reach the World Cup quarterfinals with a 2-1 victory Saturday in Sochi.

Cavani, who opened the scoring on seven minutes, opened his body just above the penalty area on the left to load up his right foot, meeting a rolling pass by Rodrigo Bentancur and side-footing his inch-perfect curling shot from 20 yards past a diving Rui Patricio and into the right corner of the net to snap a 1-1 tie.

Portugal had two chances to force extra time in the dying seconds, with the allotted four minutes of extra time extending to six, but Ricardo Quaresma’s 10-yard shot stung the palms of Uruguay keeper Fernando Muslera. While Portugal counterpart Rui Patricio met the ensuing corner as an extra attacker, it was cleared in a frantic scramble during which Portgual players screamed at referee Cesar Arturo Ramos Palazuelos with claims of handball.

Pepe had canceled out Cavani’s goal with a 55th-minute header off a short corner, but his inability to corral Muslera’s goal kick led to Cavani’s second six minutes later.

It was the third goal in two matches for Cavani, who struggled to get going at this World Cup until his last-minute goal in Uruguay’s 3-0 win over Russia to conclude group play. La Celeste are through to the quarterfinals for the second time in their last three World Cup appearances, having finished fourth in South Africa in 2010.

While the 33-year-old Ronaldo had his best World Cup in terms of goals with four in his fourth appearance on football’s biggest stage, he failed to make a strong impact on this match as Uruguay’s disciplined back line, led by Atletico Madrid central defenders Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez, did well to limit his scoring chances.

It was the third time in his four World Cup appearances Ronaldo failed to advance beyond the round of 16, following Argentina’s Lionel Messi out the door in Russia hours apart as his fourth-place finish in 2006 remains his high-water mark.

Ronaldo’s lone shot on goal came in the first chance of the match, a 20-yard shot easily caught by Muslera in the sixth minute. Cavani was the architect of his first goal, reversing play from the right sideline with a cross-pitch pass to Luis Suarez. His strike partner cut inside and curled a right-footed cross that Cavani met from five yards, beating Portugal defender Raphael Guerreiro to the far post and heading home for his 44th international goal.

A Selecao responded well in search of an equalizer, with Ronaldo having a shot blocked by Lucas Torreira and Goncalo Guedes suffering a similar fate that weakly found its way to Muslera. Gimenez then did well to clear a cross from Guedes as he tried to pick out an open Ronaldo in the penalty area for a header.

Suarez earned himself a free kick in the 21st minute after being fouled by Pepe 25 yards from goal. The Barcelona striker went low underneath the wall, and while seeing it late, Patricio did well to dive to his left knock it away.

Just after the half-hour, it was Ronaldo’s turn to line up a free kick, but his effort from 30 yards was absorbed by the Uruguay wall. In the 35th minute, Nahitan Nandez picked out Cavani with a cross on the left, but his chest trap was too strong and it went over the end line.

Palazuelos did little in the way of halting what was at times cynical play except for what he thought were blatant fouls. While Suarez is no stranger to play-acting, he was plowed from behind by Guerreiro late in the first half, but Palazuelos wasn’t moved as Portugal played forward and left Suarez behind writhing on the pitch.

Portgual came out strong after the restart and put La Celeste on the back foot, earning a succession of corners. The third one proved the charm for A Selecao as Pepe, who started in a deep position, ghosted behind Jimenez and hit a majestic 10-yard header on Guerriero’s cross from the left into the space Muslera had vacated as he tried to move across the goal line.

Yet as Pepe taketh, he gaveth away in short order. Muslera launched a goal kick into Portugal’s half, and while Suarez didn’t go up with Pepe to challenge for the ball, he distracted the Portgual defender just enough it continued to Bentancur as the situation quickly escalated into a 3-on-2 for Uruguay.

Bentancur’s weighted pass gave Cavani all the time in the world to pick out the right corner he immediately decided upon aiming for, and the striker made no mistake for his fifth career World Cup goal.

Muslera, though, nearly gifted Portugal an equalizer in the 70th minute when he failed to cleanly catch a cross, fumbling it forwards. Guerreiro got a touch to it while colliding with Muslera, and the ball went to Bernardo Silva, but his contested right-footed effort from 15 yards blazed over the bar.

Shortly after that, Cavani came up limping after a knock that forced his exit without a true chance at a third goal. Cristhain Stuani entered for the final quarter-hour, while Portugal introduced forward Andre Silva in their push for the tying goal.

Ricardo Quaresma, who also entered in the second half, sent a cross Ronaldo narrowly missed in the 83rd minute as Portugal continued to ratchet up the pressure and tick its corner kick higher. A Selecao brought on Manuel Fernandes five minutes from time, and he quickly challenged Muslera with a 25-yard shot the Uruguay keeper handled easily.

Ronaldo had one more chance, but it was speculative at best as he failed to get over a 30-yard effort and sent it well wide of the right post. Uruguay nearly saw the game off early in stoppage time as Suarez worked himself free on the right side and picked out Cristian Rodriguez with a cross, but he miscued his shot wide of the target.

2018 World Cup Round of 16 Preview — Uruguay vs Portugal (Match 50)

With three clean sheets and the maximum nine points, one gets the sense Uruguay has not been truly challenged at this World Cup.

That all changes Saturday in Sochi where Cristiano Ronaldo and reigning European champion Portugal await in the round of 16.

La Celeste had little problems finishing atop a Group A that included lightweights Egypt and Saudi Araba along with host Russia. The two-time champions did not face Pharaohs striker Mohamed Salah in their opener as he was held out due to a shoulder injury suffered in the Champions League final, faced little threat from the Green Falcons and outclassed a 10-man Sbornaya side that had little to play for as both teams clinched spots in the knockout round after the first two matches.

So facing Ronaldo marks the first time Uruguay will face a world-class striker in this tournament. La Celeste, however, were stifling defensively in their three wins; they yielded only seven shots on target and 19 attempts overall.

Offensively, Uruguay needed all three matches to shuffle through its gears, but its 3-0 victory over Russia may have been the perfect jumping point as both Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani scored goals. Suarez also scored against Saudi Arabia, and while Cavani’s goal was from close range, it definitely eased the pressure on the PSG striker after his struggles in the first two matches.

La Celeste are in the knockout round for the third consecutive World Cup, with the high-water mark their fourth-place finish in 2010. They lost to continental rival Colombia in the round of 16 four years ago in Brazil.

Ronaldo is already enjoying the best of his three World Cup appearances as he enters this contest second in the race for the Golden Boot with four goals. The Portuguese superstar also became Europe’s all-time leading scorer with his most recent tally, the match-winner in a 1-0 victory over Morocco that was his 85th in 153 appearances with A Selecao das Quinas.

Portugal finished second to Spain in Group B, matching its Iberian rival with five points but scoring one less goal as it finished with five. Its 3-3 draw versus Spain on the second day of the World Cup ranks up there as one of the best matches the tournament has ever produced, with Ronaldo’s hat trick capped by a spectacular free kick in the 88th minute rescuing what proved to be a vital point.

Yet there were some nervy moments late as Portugal was held to a 1-1 draw by Iran on Monday. A Selecao conceded a penalty in second-half stoppage time, then allowed a high-quality chance that whistled wide of Rui Patricio’s left post just before the final whistle that would have dumped them out of group play.

The Real Madrid star’s scoring prowess has hid some defensive deficiencies for Portugal, as it struggled at times to impose its will on matches in a finely balanced Group B and suffered at points in all three matches. Given Uruguay has two forwards who can make life miserable for veteran central defenders Pepe and Jose Fonte, there will be pressure on both ends of the pitch for A Selecao, who may have to outscore La Celeste as opposed to trying to hit them on the counter or rely on a moment of magic from Ronaldo.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Uruguay
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′)

Portugal
June 15 — Portugal 3, Spain 3 (Ronaldo 4′ (PK), Costa 24′, Ronaldo 44′, Costa 55′, Nacho 58′, Ronaldo 88′)
June 20 — Portugal 1, Morocco 0 (Ronaldo 4′)
June 25 — Portugal 1, Iran 1 (Quaresma 45′, Ansarifard 90+3′ (PK))

FORMATIONS

Both teams are expected to line up in a 4-4-2 formation. Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez’s spine has remained steady with Fernando Muslera between the sticks, Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez in central defense and Matias Vecino and Rodrigo Bentancur in midfield. Tabarez likely will stick with Carlos Sanchez on the right flank, though it is possible veteran Cristian Rodriguez could be swapped out on the left for Giorgian De Arrascaeta.

Portugal manager Ricardo Santos will have to choose between giving midfielder Ricardo Quaresma a second straight start out wide on the right after his well-taken goal versus Iran or restore Bernando Silva. Adrien Silva did enough against Team Melli he should remain over Goncalo Guedes, and left back Raphael Guerreiro has caused some nervous moments in front of Patricio.

INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES

Gimenez was held out of Uruguay’s victory over Russia due to a thigh injury, and while his status for this match has not been made definitive, he did return to practice Wednesday. In the event the Atletico Madrid defender cannot play, Sebastian Coates would be his most likely replacement after playing the full 90 versus Russia.

Bentancur is the only Albiceleste player on a yellow card.

Portugal do not appear to have any injury issues, but six players are on yellow cards, including their first-choice striker tandem of Ronaldo and Adrien Silva. If they, along with Cedric, Guerreiro Quaresma and Bruno Fernandes can avoid picking up a second booking, they will all have their cards wiped away.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Uruguay – Edinson Cavani (F)

Cavani’s goal against Russia was his third career marker in the World Cup as he has scored one each in the last three tournaments. The PSG forward, though, is looking for the form that allowed him to bag seven goals in South American qualifying and another two in the China Cup in March.

Cavani has taken a team-high 13 shots and is tied with Suarez for the lead with four on target. That latter figure does not include a shot off the post against Egypt in Uruguay’s opener.

Portugal – Cristiano Ronaldo (F)

Every time you think it’s impossible to overstate Ronaldo’s importance to Portugal’s offense, there is another statistic that comes along to continue keeping it in perspective. He has taken 15 of A Selecao’s 32 shots and seven of the team’s nine shots on target have come from him.

Ronaldo’s ratio of shots to shots on goal is markedly better than it was in helping Portugal to the Euro title two years ago when he put only 12 of his 46 attempts on frame, and he has scored more goals in Russia than he did in the seven games in France in 2016.

WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD

This will be the first World Cup meeting between the sides, who have met only twice previously and not since a 1-1 draw in the 1972 Independencia, which was a 20-team tournament to celebrate Brazil’s 150th anniversary of independence. Portugal won the other match 3-0 in a 1966 friendly.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Uruguay is a narrow favorite at 33/20 odds, while both Portugal and the match going to penalty kicks is listed at 9/5. Ronaldo is the top choice for first goal-scorer at 16/5, while Suarez and Cavani are right behind him at 7/2. Uruguay veteran Maxi Gomez, who made a late cameo against Russia, is a curious listing at 9/2, and Portugal’s kiddie corps of forwards — Silva and Guedes — are joint 13/2.

PREDICTION

In a word, cagey. One gets the sense this match is going to be decided by which team can move forward wide to set up their forwards with crosses in the penalty area. If there is one area where Uruguay have an advantage, it is that Gimenez and Godin are intimately familiar with Ronaldo’s patterns having faced him so often in their Madrid derbies.

Additionally, Pepe and Fonte have had torrid moments at times dealing with opposing forwards, evidenced by the way Diego Costa manhandled them in the Spain match. Cavani is the more physical of the two Albiceleste forwards, but most eyes will be watching Pepe and Suarez, who could turn this match into a theatre of the absurd with their play-acting.

Both teams scored first in all three of their respective group matches, and Uruguay has yet to trail in Russia. Ronaldo may have caught Spain’s backline napping when he earned the foul that led to his match-tying free kick, and given he has already scored twice in the opening five minutes of a match, Fernando Muslera should be on his toes for an early rasper.

Though Coates is more than serviceable in the event Gimenez cannot play, it still is a disruption Uruguay will have to work hard to overcome. While Portugal is good, the end of the line is in Sochi at the hands of the Albiceleste, who will post a fourth clean sheet while getting goals from either Suarez or Cavani, or possibly both.

PREDICTION: Uruguay 2, Portugal 0

UP NEXT

The winner of this match will play the winner of the match between France and Argentina in the quarterfinals July 6 in Nizhny Novogorod.

World Cup Recap Match 36 — Portugal 1, Iran 1 (June 25)

Portugal made a narrow escape into the round of 16 at the World Cup as Cristiano Ronaldo missed a penalty kick and was fortunate not to be sent off in the second half in a thrilling 1-1 draw with a heartbroken Iran side Monday to close Group B play in Saransk.

The reigning European champion finished tied with Iberian rival Spain atop the group with five points but lost out on the goals scored tiebreaker, finishing with one less than Spain’s six. Portugal, though, did move into a mouth-watering knockout round match versus Group A winner Uruguay on Saturday in Sochi that will pit two of the world’s best strikers against each other in Ronaldo and Luis Suarez.

Ronaldo, though, was relieved he only saw a yellow card from referee Enrique Caceres, who endured his second torrid time in as many matches and will likely not be part of the officiating crews going forward. Caceres consulted VAR in clumsy fashion multiple times, including a review in which Ronaldo appeared to make contact with Morteza Pouraliganji’s face as he attempted to chase down a long ball on the left side.

While Pouraliganji made a meal of it as he theatrically dropped to the pitch, replays did show clear contact, and per FIFA’s rules, it should have been a direct red card and ejection.

Iran made a tough-luck exit in third place on four points despite conceding just two goals in its three matches. It was Team Melli’s best showing in four World Cup appearances since the field expanded to 32, but it was still not enough to make their first knockout round showing in team history.

Ricardo Quaresma gave the Navigators a 1-0 lead in first-half stoppage time, and that was canceled out on a contentious penalty converted by Karim Ansarifard in the 93rd minute. In between, Ronaldo was felled in the box by Saeid Ezatalohi eight minutes after the restart, but his attempt from the spot was well-saved by Iran keeper Ali Berainvand, who correctly dove to his left and caught the attempt.

Ansarifard’s penalty set up a dramatic final few minutes in which Mehdi Taremi fizzed a shot from seven yards just wide of the left post and into the side netting as Rui Patricio came out to cut down the angle. Taremi was inconsolable after the final whistle, sobbing face-down on the pitch knowing how close he had come to a historic victory.

Ronaldo quickly began his hunt for a fifth goal to equal England’s Harry Kane for the Golden Boot lead as he tested Berainvand from close range in the third minute.

The nerves were apparent on the backline for a Team Melli squad that knew it needed a victory and held a higher line than their previous two matches. Berainvand let a cross go through his mitts, and in the ninth minute, Joao Mario spurned an open net after Berainvand and Ezatalohi had a miscommunication that resulted in a hash of a clearance and the Iran keeper berating his midfielder before punctuating his words with a shove.

Team Melli finally settled down, with Ehsan Haji Safi earning a free kick in a dangerous area after nutmegging Silva, but Ramin Rezaeian blazed over from 20 yards. Ali Jahanbakhsh nearly got to a through ball in the 23rd, but Rui Patricio slid out to collect it and took a slight clip to the head for his bravery.

Iran continued to find space, and another free kick in the 34th minute resulted in a shot on target, but Ezatalohi’s header went right to Patricio.

Quaresma then became the oldest player in Portugal history to score in the World Cup at 34 years, slicing a shot with the outside of his right foot that evaded Berainvand for his 10th goal for the Navigators.

VAR told Caceres to take another look at the contact between Ronaldo and Ezatalohi, which led to him pointing to the spot and enraging Team Melli. Manager Carlos Queiroz was so incensed he tossed his jacket to an assistant and walked in the waiting area behind the dugout rather than watch Ronaldo try to score his 86th international goal.

In between Ronaldo’s failed attempts, Caceres booked both Haji Safi and Sardar Azomun for dissent, further incurring Iran’s ire. Ezatalohi and Quaresma then exchanged bruising fouls, with Ezatalohi taking the worse of the two as Quaresma earned himself what he felt was a justified booking.

Iran substitute Saman Ghoddos narrowly went wide in the 72nd minute shortly after his introduction, and Azmoun tried too hard to draw a penalty on William Carvalho that Caceres dismissed. After VAR determined Ronaldo had made contact with Pouraliganji, he looked at Caceres in disbelief when he brandished the card.

Morocco had a penalty shout when Azomun headed the ball downward into Cedric Soares’ right arm, but nothing looked to be coming from it until VAR called down to Caceres to review the play, with led to Team Melli’s lifeline.

Ansarifard went to the upper right corner over a diving Patricio to level the contest, and Mehdi’s last-gasp chance came when the ball got deflected by a Portugal defender into his path as he was going to his left, and he tried to first-time the shot that had Navigators supporters with their hearts in their throats before it went outside the left post.

 

World Cup Match 18: Portugal 1, Morocco 0 (June 20)

Cristiano Ronaldo became Europe’s all-time leading scorer in international play with a fourth-minute diving header as Portugal survived a game challenge from Morocco to record a 1-0 victory in Group B play Wednesday in Moscow.

Ronaldo shook free of his mark to head a cross into the upper right corner from Joao Moutinho after he played a short corner from Bernando Silva on the left. It was the Ronaldo’s fourth goal of this World Cup and 85th with the Navigators, moving him ahead of the “Galloping Major” Ferenc Puskas, who totaled his 84 with Hungary from 1945-56.

The result gives Portugal the top spot in Group B pending the result of Spain’s match against Iran later Wednesday. The Navigators have four points and a plus-one goal difference with four goals scored.

Morocco was eliminated with its second disheartening 1-0 loss in group play. The Atlas Lions, who were done in by an own goal deep in stoppage time in their opener versus Iran, were the better team for long stretches of this contest, but inspired buildup play was canceled out with a lack of clinical finishing.

After Ronaldo’s seventh career World Cup marker, which Morocco coach Herve Renard contended should not have counted because Pepe committed a foul as the ball was sent into the penalty area, he nearly had a second in the 10th minute but put his shot wide of the left post with keeper El Kajoui rooted in place.

That near-catastrophe shook the Atlas Lions into activity, with one-time Portugal youth player Manuel De Costa getting a downward header on target off a corner from Hakim Ziyech. Morocco was constantly finding success advancing on the right, where Noureddine Amrabat, a surprise starter after suffering a concussion against Iran, was giving Portugal left back Rapahel Guerreiro a torrid time.

In the 23rd minute, Ziyech took a low shot from 25 yards Rui Patricio saw all the way into his hands. Morocco had a penalty shout when Amrabat was hauled down by Guerreiro, but since both players had a handful of the other’s fabric, it was no harm, no foul. Ronaldo had a free kick in a dangerous area just after the half-hour, but he blasted it into the wall.

Ronaldo then sent strike partner Goncalo Guedes through after a chest trap and pass over the defense, but the Valencia forward failed to deliver a solid finish as El Kajoui got his hand to the attempt. Morocco had one last chance in the opening 45 minutes, but Younes Belhanda could not get enough of Ziyech’s free kick to put it on frame.

Portugal spurned two chances to make it 2-0 early in the first half as both Silva and Ronaldo failed to put their attempts on target after hitting out on the counter. Then it was Morocco’s turn to pour forward as Belhanda had two quality chances.

The first was a right-footed shot from 15 yards Patricio stopped. The second, in the 57th minute, was the Atlas Lions’ best chance of the contest as Belhanda met Ziyech’s in-swinging free kick to put a downward header from 10 yards on target, but Patricio dove to his right to send it over the crossbar.

On the hour mark, captain Mehdi Benatia should have done better from 15 yards after controlling a Ziyech free kick and sidestepping a defender but went over the bar. In the 79th minute, the Juventus defender could not cleanly get his head to a free kick by Ziyech and sent it wide of the right post.

Portugal finally relieved some of the pressure with a counter that gave Ronaldo another free kick in a dangerous area just above the box in the 84th minute, but the wall absorbed another blast. Morocco resumed its chase of an equalizer and nearly had it on 89 minutes, but Pepe got in front of a shot by Ziyech to deflect it over the crossbar.

The Atlas Lions had one last chance in stoppage time, but as was the case all match, it went begging as Benatia skied a 10-yard attempt over the bar.

Morocco will have a chance to play spoiler in its final match as it faces Spain on Monday in Kaliningrad, while Portugal will try to claim group honors the same day against Iran in Saransk.

 

World Cup Group B — Portugal (0-1-0) vs. Morocco (0-0-1) Match Preview

After Cristiano Ronaldo’s magnificent performance against Spain netted Portgual only a draw in its World Cup opener, the Navigators look for more Wednesday when they face a desperate Morocco side in their second Group B match at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

Ronaldo was the talk of the first full day of matches at the World Cup as he twice gave Portugal a one-goal lead before saving the day with an exquisite 25-yard free kick into the upper right corner in the 88th minute to salvage a 3-3 stalemate against eternal Iberian rival Spain on Friday. The Real Madrid superstar also converted a penalty in the fourth minute and got a gift second goal right before halftime when Spain keeper David De Gea made a hash of his 20-yard shot.

The three-goal haul lifted Ronaldo’s career international tally to 84 goals, tying him with Ferenc Puskas for the most among European players. Only Iran’s Ali Daei with 109 goals has more in international play, and Ronaldo also became just the fourth player to score in four different World Cups while doubling his all-time total in football’s premier tournament.

Morocco need at least a draw from this match to entertain any hope of reaching the knockout round. In their first World Cup appearance since 1998, the Atlas Lions suffered a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to Iran on Friday as forwardc Aziz Bouhaddouz’s attempted clearance in the 95th minute turned into a bullet header and own goal into the back of his net.

The loss ended an 18-match unbeaten streak in international play and left the Atlas Lions with a difficult task in emerging from group play for the first time since doing so for the only time in team history in 1986.

LAST TIME OUT

Ronaldo’s incredible performance on the attacking half of the pitch covered the blushes of a suspect Portugal defense. Diego Costa manhandled the Navigators’ back line, throwing aside Pepe in the start of the buildup to Spain’s first goal before everyone on the back line completely broke down on a set piece that led to his second.

Portuguese keeper Rui Patricio could not be faulted on the last two goals, with Nacho’s sublime volley accounting for Spain’s third, and it is also very hard to pin any blame on him for Costa’s first goal, which fizzed between two defenders and inside the left post from the top of the penalty area.

Morocco did not make the most of its advantage in possession against Iran, with Hakim Ziyech coming closest to a goal in the 79th minute as his 20-yard slicing volley at the lower left corner was pushed away by Team Melli keeper Ali Berinvand. Given Ronaldo’s ethereal quality, talisman and defender Medhi Benatia likely will not make many forays forward except for corner kicks and set pieces in Portugal’s final third.

FORMATIONS

Portugal boss Fernando Santos likely will keep the same starting XI for this contest, though if there is any changes to be made, it will likely come up front where Andre Silva could replace Goncalo Guedes as Ronaldo’s forward partner.

For Morocco, one likely switch by Herve Renard will be inserting Nabil Dirar at right back. The Fenerbahce wing back missed the match against Iran due to a calf injury, and his replacement Noureddine Amrabat is not expected to be available due to a concussion suffered Friday.

COACHES CORNER

None of three Santos’ substitutions had a marked impact on the contest as like-for-like replacements Joao Mario, Ricardo Quaresma and Andre Silva met the minimum expectations over the final 20 minutes by helping Portugal not concede a goal that would have put the match out of reach before Ronaldo’s heroics.

Renard was forced into one substitution due to Amrabat’s concussion as he called upon younger brother Sofyan, and the manager could not be blamed in being aggressive in his other two swaps of Bouhaddouz and Manuel De Costa given the Atlas Lions had been controlling play through possession while Iran did not take a shot the entire second half.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Portugal – Cristiano Ronaldo (F)

It is going to take something incredible as an encore act to top what Ronaldo did against Spain, but if there is any player at this World Cup who can do it, it’s Ronaldo. Renard knows that stopping him entirely is asking too much for his players, and the Atlas Lions boss is hoping they can make him “less exceptional.”

“Even if you conjure up the best plans to halt Ronaldo, he will find a way to break free. He always makes the difference, at the minimum to put his side on the right track and at best to win the game for them,” Renard said at his Tuesday press conference.

Morocco – Mehdi Benatia (D)

The linchpin of Morocco’s defense and team talisman, Benatia gets the first of two extremely challenging assignments in group play as he faces Ronaldo. The Portuguese striker is no stranger to Benatia from their Champions League skirmishes while playing for Juventus, but without the quality of the Italian side on both the back line and between the sticks in support for this endeavor, Benatia is going to need a towering performance if Morocco is going to get at least one point from this contest.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Portugal are solid 6-10 favorites to take all three points, while Morocco are getting 5-1 odds. The odds of the teams splitting points are 13-5. Unsurprisingly, Ronaldo is the favorite to be the first goal-scorer of the contest with 11-5 odds, followed by teammate Andre Silva at 9-2. Ayoub El-Kabbi and reserve striker Khalid Boutaib share joint-honors for Morocco at 17-2 to provide an unlikely lead.

PREDICTION

Morocco is caught between a rock and a hard space as its loss to Iran left no wiggle room in its bid to reach the knockout round. The Atlas Lions would have to pull off two of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, beating a former World Cup winner and the reigning European champion, in back-to-back matches.

If there is one positive for the Atlas Lions, is that Ziyech will likely have time on the ball offensively given how Portugal prefer to sit back and hit on the counter. Whether he and El-Kabbi can turn possession into quality scoring chances against Portugal’s central defense pairing of Pepe and Jose Fonte is another question.

One of the more amazing things about Ronaldo’s play is how he has raised his game to correspond to the stakes. While he did get injured in the Euro final, he was the primary reason the Navigators got to the final. There is no more “Yeah, but…” to his game, he’s a superstar and while one can argue if he makes his teammates better, there is no argument he consistently puts Portugal in winning positions.

Portugal likely will not need another three-goal game from Ronaldo, but it also won’t turn away such an effort. This likely will be an even game for the first hour before the quality the Navigators can introduce in attack in those final 30 minutes will create separation in a 2-1 victory.

UP NEXT

Portugal will close group play Monday versus Iran in Saransk, while Morocco will face 2010 champion Spain in Kaliningrad the same day.