The World Cup knockout stages get underway tomorrow and the second game of the day will see Uruguay and Portugal meet in Sochi.
It promises to be an intriguing match-up between two of the tournament dark horses. Both teams can boast world-class forwards, with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani leading the line for Uruguay and Cristiano Ronaldo pushing Portugal on.
The battle in the dugouts will be just as interesting to watch. This will be Oscar Tabarez’s final tournament for Uruguay and the man known simply as ‘maestro’ will want to end on a high – but opposite number Fernando Santos showed in 2016 that he knows all about negotiating knockout matches.
Uruguay were one of only three teams to win their group with a 100 per cent record, but it took them until their third game to reach the higher gears. They started out with a sluggish performance against Egypt, but Jose Gimenez’s late header got them off to a winning start.
In their second match, Suarez’s goal was enough to overcome Saudi Arabia, but 1-0 was a disappointing score against the team that hosts Russia had put five past on the opening day. But Uruguay came to life in their last group game, with Suarez and Cavani both on the scoresheet in a convincing victory over the Russians.
Portugal got their campaign underway with a thrilling 3-3 draw against Spain, as Cristiano Ronaldo completed a hat-trick with a late free kick to salvage a point. In their second game against Morocco, Portugal were outclassed for much of the game but another Ronaldo goal put them in pole position ahead of match-day three.
Fernando Santos’ team were once again poor against Iran, but looked set to top Group B thanks to a sublime finish from Ricardo Quaresma. Karim Ansarifard’s controversial penalty however, combined with Spain’s injury-time equaliser against Morocco, sent them into the harder half of the draw.
Uruguay switched from the usual 4-4-2 formation to a more fluid 4-3-2-1 against Russia and reaped the benefits, but Oscar Tabarez will probably revert to type in expectation of a low-scoring game. That could mean recalls for Guillermo Varela, Martin Caceres and Cristian Rodriguez, but Nahitan Nandez may have done enough to keep his place.
Uruguay are one of only two teams in the last 16, along with Spain, to have picked up just one yellow card during the group stages. Midfielder Rodrigo Bentacur is the man who would miss a potential quarter-final if cautioned.
Portugal will be boosted by the return of Joao Moutinho, who only appeared as a late substitute against Iran due to illness. Santos also brought in Andre Silva for Goncalo Guedes for that game but he failed to impress and could be benched once more. Ricardo Quaresma will surely keep his place after scoring on his first World Cup start.
Fernando Santos does not have any fresh injury concerns to contend with. There are six Portugal players who are one yellow card away from suspension, including Cristiano Ronaldo.
Portugal started the group stages well but got worse as it went on. Uruguay started slowly but got better as it went on. That momentum could prove decisive tomorrow.
A lot will depend on which star players turn up. If Ronaldo is at his very best for Portugal then Uruguay could be in trouble, but that’s a big if – he’s been distinctly average since the hat-trick against Spain.
Uruguay have the benefit of two world-class strikers rather than one, and they also have the best defender of the tournament so far in Diego Godin. It could go all the way in Sochi, but the South Americans should have just enough to edge out the European champions.
Predicted Starting Lineups
Uruguay (4-4-2): Muslera; Varela, Gimenez, Godin, Caceres; Nandez, Vecino, Bentancur, Rodriguez; Suarez, Cavani
Portugal (4-4-2): Patricio; Cedric, Pepe, Fonte, Guerreiro; Quaresma, Carvalho, Moutinho, Mario; Ronaldo, Guedes