Russia’s roaring start to its World Cup had prompted a wide range of reactions. It induced wonder. It fed doping conspiracies. More so than anything, though, it sparked surprise. And it begged the question: Was the dominance sustainable?
The answer, which Uruguay helped uncover Monday, is a resounding no.
In their third and final group match, both the hosts and visiting Uruguayans reverted to form. Both, finally, re-aligned with pre-tournament expectations. Uruguay won 3-0 to top Group A, and showed why 180 previously underwhelming minutes were irrelevant.
Russia’s World Cup party, on the other hand, was shut down. And maybe for good.
Russia is a cautionary tale of major tournament overreaction, small sample sizes and weak opponents. Its eight goals and one conceded through two matches were eye-popping. But they came against Saudi Arabia and Egypt, arguably two of the five worst teams in the competition.
The real Russia was the one on display Monday. There were some hinderances, like the absence of Aleksandr Golovin, who was rested to avoid yellow card suspension. But this was more like the team we expected to see: mediocre, decent going forward, vulnerable at the back.
Igor Smolnikov’s second yellow card, which more or less cemented Uruguay’s win late in the first half, was representative of that vulnerability:
Things go from bad to worse for Russia as Smolnikov is shown his second yellow!
The hosts will play the final 55 minutes with 10 men. pic.twitter.com/3VJ0VQ869T
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 25, 2018
So were several other Uruguay counterattacks that fizzled out, and the one that led to the first goal.
Russia is still far better than many believed it to be. It’s certainly far better than the FIFA rankings – which should never, ever be cited to assess a team’s quality – let on. But it’s not a semifinal threat.
Uruguay, however, is.
Uruguay quells concern
Uruguay has not proven that. In the weakest group in World Cup history, it has not proven anything, really. But it hasn’t offered negative evidence, either.
The South Americans were popular sleepers before the tournament kicked off, but hadn’t exactly validated those predictions in their first two games. Their inability to break down Saudi Arabia in a 1-0 win was particularly troubling.
But manager Oscar Tabarez went back to his best lineup Monday, re-introducing Nahitan Nandez and introducing Lucas Torreira in a 4-3-1-2, with Rodrigo Bentancur supporting the front two. Bentancur, who has impressed so far at the World Cup, won the free kick on the edge of the area that led to Suarez’s opener:
Luis Suarez puts Uruguay up 1-0 on Russia early in the game! pic.twitter.com/0Sa3aYzS5Y
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 25, 2018
Edinson Cavani got off the mark late. The front two are now firing. And goals aside, they were breaking in transition just as they do when they’re at their best. They weren’t as clinical as they often are. But you wouldn’t bet against them taking chances in an elimination match.
They’re a reason Uruguay is dangerous. So is a defense that hasn’t conceded a goal in 540 minutes of soccer in 2018. Stiffer tests are ahead, but there are no signs of leaks.
That Uruguay struggled against inferior opponents earlier in the tournament doesn’t matter. It is going to be a hellish matchup for whoever it gets in the Round of 16 and possibly beyond.
What the result means
Russia’s World Cup, of course, is not over. The hosts clinched progression to the Round of 16 last week.
Monday’s game was one of the less meaningful Matchday 3 deciders. With both teams already through, at stake was first place in Group A. Uruguay claimed it, and will play Saturday. Russia dipped into the runner-up slot, and will play Sunday.
But they don’t yet know their opponents. They’ll find out later on Tuesday. Uruguay will get the Group B runner-up. Russia will get the Group B winner. Either opponent could be Spain, Portugal or Iran.
With Spain the favorite to finish first, though, both Russia and Uruguay played to win on Monday. Uruguay won. Now it waits to see if it will get a favorable matchup.
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• FIFA knew of Russian doping, did nothing – report
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