This was supposed to be a night of blood and belligerence. Luis Suarez against Pepe. Cristiano Ronaldo contra Diego Godin. ‘Shithousery’, chicanery and fingers going where fingers do not usually to go. Every VAR review would be a video nasty. ‘The Battle of the Black Sea’, some preemptively called it. Tell the medical staff to bring their body bags, they said. Only one of these sides would leave Sochi alive.
This was no dirty war, though. Instead, Uruguay and Edinson Cavani progressed to the World Cup quarter-finals by carrying out a clean, thorough and methodical assassination of a frenzied, desperate Portugal. Oscar Tabarez, Uruguay’s long-serving head coach, has spent both his spells in charge of La Celeste attempting to move them away from the reputation for violent play earned in the 1970s and 1980s. On this evidence alone, he is succeeding.
Two clinical finishes by Cavani, one early on in proceedings, the other not long after Pepe’s equaliser, kept a firm but fair Uruguay out of the referee’s notebook and put them into the quarter-finals against France. The only downside? An injury to their match-winner, potentially a calf problem, that could well end his tournament.
Portugal dominated the play for long spells – particularly in the second half – and will regret Bernardo Silva’s miss shortly after Uruguay’s second, when the goalmouth was gaping. Uruguay, however, were always confident that their backline – centred around Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez, the Atletico Madrid partnership and perhaps this World Cup’s best defensive pairing – would hold the line.
They did just that and in doing so, reduced Ronaldo to a mass of seething frustration. His irritation was clear when he impatiently carried the injured Cavani off the pitch 20 minutes from full time. As the clock ticked by, with Portugal no closer to finding their second equaliser, it became too much for him.
A scream into the face of referee Cesar Ramos saw Ronaldo receive the game’s first and only yellow card. It was the outburst of a man who knew that in the fifth World Cup knockout game of his career, he would fail to find his first World Cup knockout goal. His desires on the Golden Boot and perhaps the Ballon d’Or are gone. He leaves this tournament on the same day as Lionel Messi and like his rival, there will be questions as to whether he will return.
For Uruguay, though, the journey continues and equalling the semi-final spot of South Africa 2010 is a realistic prospect. Tabarez’s main concern will be Cavani. If La Celeste’s simple but effective game plan has a weakness, it is its reliance on the genius of Suarez and Cavani to supplement the rearguard’s sturdiness. The system needs them to deliver in order to work and fortunately, they did that as early as the seventh-minute in Sochi, with an extraordinary one-two so ambitious it caught Portugal cold.
Cavani, out on the right and only just entering opposition territory, first switched play to Suarez on the opposite flank. By the time his strike partner had trapped the ball, stepped inside and sought to cross, Cavani was already in the penalty area and peeling off Raphael Guerreiro, in space at the far post.
In two beautiful, raking passes, Uruguay had not only cut their opponents open but almost covered the width of the pitch twice. The third and final touch was the only imperfect one. Cavani converted past Rui Patricio emphatically but also slightly awkwardly, diverting Suarez’s cross with his nose rather than his forehead.
Mere minutes after the opener, Ronaldo abandoned the cute shimmies and neat interplay he had shown in the opening stages and started going it alone, cutting inside from the left with intent, searching for openings but finding none. A free-kick on the half-hour mark, at the same stadium where he scored his phenomenal equaliser against Spain, did not whip around the wall and nestle in the top corner this time.
Uruguay were suffocating their opponents, restricting them to hopeful long-range attempts, but after spending so long seeming impenetrable, their defence eventually came under a sustained period of examination for the first time in this tournament. Not long after at the start of the second half, they conceded their first goal since arriving in Russia.
Godin, imperious up to this point and so often aware of the immediate threats around him, was caught out while transfixed on the danger posed by Ronaldo on a corner. As the ball whipped over him and Ronaldo, the unmarked Pepe headed the equaliser. It was a goal against the run of play, or at least one that – for all Portugal’s endeavour – appeared unlikely.
Uruguay, though, were unlikely to give up an opportunity so easily again. Their opponents, meanwhile, remain defensively suspect and Cavani quickly re-established La Celeste’s lead with their first attack of the second half. It was a simple goal – born of winning both an aerial duel and a second ball – but it required a sublime finish from Cavani, who arced his attempt around Patricio’s outstretched palm and in.
Portugal, undeterred, pressed again and picked up where they left off in dominating possession. One spill by Fernando Muslera should have been punished and the Uruguay goalkeeper panicked when Bernardo Silva collected the loose ball on the edge of the area with a largely unguarded goal to aim at. And yet, without time to set himself, Bernardo shot over.
If the pressure on Uruguay’s backline was heavy at the start of the second half, it was immense now, but they could carry the weight. Portugal kept coming without creating anything clear-cut and the fate of Fernando Santos’ side appeared sealed when Ronaldo’s caution came in the dying minutes. The man Diego Forlan described as “50 per cent” of this Portuguese side was now suspended for any prospective quarter-final and their chances of progression suddenly dropped to zero.