Achieving their first win in a World Cup opener since 1970 may be viewed as a step forward for Uruguay. But the manner of their last-gasp victory over a poor, Mo Salah-less Egypt side provided more questions than answers surrounding Oscar Tabarez’s highly-anticipated side.
The 71-year-old coach was brought to his feet while everyone around him rushed from the bench to celebrate Jose Gimenez’s 90th-minute winner, but relief rather than joy was the prevailing emotion because Uruguay – many pundits’ pick to cause a shock – recognised that the Atletico Madrid centre-half had got them off the hook.
It was a listless performance in front of a crowd way down on the Ekaterinburg Arena’s makeshift capacity. In a tournament where optics are everything, it was a poor show all round until Gimenez out-leaped everyone to plant a header past Egypt goalkeeper Mohamed El-Shenawy, who was left largely redundant for most of the afternoon.
Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani managed only two efforts between them that truly tested El-Shenawy but the most disappointing facet of Uruguay’s performance was to be found elsewhere.
Sandwiched between that star strike duo and the irrepressible presence of Diego Godin, a trio that can boast a combined total of 315 caps, was a young, remodelled midfield that had helped to create a pre-tournament buzz around Uruguay. In Yekaterinburg, they failed to justify the hype.
The four-man unit of Rodrigo Bentancur, Matías Vecino, Nahitan Nandez and Giorgian De Arrascaeta boasted an average age of 23 and between them, they carried only 55 caps to Russia as well as the expectation that this was a midfield that expected to offer more flair and creativity than Uruguay engine rooms of years gone by. With these boys providing the bullets, it was felt that their proven marksmen could fire La Celeste to new heights.
Only Bentacur made a favourable impression and even the crafty Juventus lock-picker frustrated for much of the afternoon. By half-time, the 20-year-old had enjoyed most touches on the ball and retained the highest pass accuracy – a close-to-flawless 97.7 percent – but Egypt were more than content to sit back and watch the show Bentancur was putting on in front of them. Only once, in the 11th minute, did Uruguay move the ball quickly between the lines and it led to a chance that Suarez would normally have buried rather than shank it as he did.
The second half saw Bentancur push slightly further forward in an effort to find the nooks of space, and he became more ambitious in his passing, despite still struggling with the execution. He and Inter Milan ball-winner Vecino finished with 207 touches between them but not one that made a tangible difference.
That will continue to be a problem for Uruguay during this group stage. Tabarez builds his sides on defensive soliditiy and relies on hitting their foes on the break. When opponents sit deep and limit the scope for counter-attacks, like Egypt on Friday, then Uruguay require more imagination and drive to break through those ranks.
Godin, in both halves, tried to set the tone by carrying the ball out himself and the younger legs in front of him would do well to follow the leader. Very little about Uruguay’s play in the Egypt half unsettled the Pharaohs’ shape, especially while their own remained so rigid.
17 – Edinson Cavani had the fewest touches (17) of any Uruguay player in the first half, with none of those coming in the opposition's box. Restricted. #EGYURU #URU #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/IXlby59phP
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 15, 2018
The lack of service frustrated the front two, with Cavani failing to have a touch in the opposition box during the first half, while what touches his strike partner managed seemed to bounce off him. The second period showed how dangerous they can be when they can turn and combine, but while their supporting cast fails to drive forward – on and off the ball – to create pockets for Cavani and Suarez to thrive, then the star duo will continue to toil.
Giminez’s winner puts Uruguay firmly in the Group A driving seat, especially with the Saudis to come next. But with Spain or Portugal likely waiting for them in the last 16, Tabarez’s midfield has much to improve upon if they are to achieve what many believe they can.
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