The summer in Russia has already upstaged quite a few recent editions of the FIFA World Cup with its vivid moments and the knockout stages kick off with two captivating contests in France vs Argentina and Uruguay vs Portugal. One of the three Round of 16 encounters to pitch conventional footballing powerhouses against each other, the Battle of Sochi brings together the Group A winners Uruguay and Group B runners-up Portugal.
Uruguay, with Oscar Tabarez’s decade-long pedagogy, headed into the World Cup with a settled squad and have been one of the only two teams to boast of a cent percent record in the group stages (the other country being Croatia). Portugal, the reigning European champions, meanwhile have an interesting amalgamation of youth and experience, but in spite of their recent successes under Fernando Santos, do not possess an well-rounded starting eleven.
Essentially a one-man team spearheaded by Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal have dazzled and baffled this summer, their fortunes revolving around the Real Madrid talisman. Portugal pulled off a World Cup classic in their opener against Spain and dispatched an inspired Morocco thanks to their skipper, but were then shaken up by Iranian resilience, all the while embroiled in controversial decisions from the VAR.
Contrast that to Uruguay who have mostly flown under the radar with their unspectacularly solid performances. It took them an eternity to find the winner against Egypt but their displays against Saudi Arabia and Russia were as professional as they come. After all, more than a decade of Tabarez at helm has ingrained the philosophy of understated brilliance among the 2011 Copa America champions.
With footballing ideologies of their own, led by two managers favouring distinct tactical systems to contribute to their cause, Portugal and Uruguay are not familiar foes, but they base their individual gameplay on similar tenets. Fielding variations of the traditional 4-4-2, both these nations prefer to apply pressure all over the pitch but prioritise caution over everything else — their modus operandi dominated by a strong defensive outlook which transitions into a deadly, rapid attack heralded by some of the game’s finest forwards.
The La Celeste midfield is brimming with creativity, especially with Matias Vecino and Rodrigo Bentancur in excellent form as the Serie A youngsters tee up Suarez and Cavani with delectable service. Tabarez had devised his successful tactical system at a time when Uruguay did not boast of quality central midfielders, but the emergence of the likes of Vecino and Bentancur has comforted the veteran manager.
On the contrary, the Selecaos dos Quinas midfield is yet to fire all cylinders — Joao Moutinho and William Carvalho have under-performed severely so far in Russia. Bruno Fernandes was expected to set the stage ablaze but has disappointed as well, with the onus mostly resting on the young Bernardo Silva and old warhorse Ricardo Quaresma to provide Ronaldo with the necessary support.
While team philosophy will play a key role, the match will most likely be decided on solo battles. Here are some of the crucial tussles which will decide the course of the game:
Cristiano Ronaldo vs Diego Godin
In Godin and Jose Gimenez, Uruguay have one of the most priceless commodities in international football — a centre-back pairing which plays together week in and week out for Atletico Madrid. On Saturday, they will come up against an opponent they have faced on countless occasions in El Derbi Madrileno. Ronaldo was having the tournament of his life until he missed that penalty against Iran, costing his team an easier route to the semi-finals. That miss, however, has probably fired the 33-year-old to come up with a stronger display in this encounter.
This particular contest promises to be aggressive, both physically and technically. Against any other forward, Godin will be towering over but Ronaldo plays with the air of a man who fears nobody and unless Uruguay can neutralise him, nothing else will matter much.
Luis Suarez vs Pepe
Pepe may have aged, but he is still the menacing defensive stalwart he used to be. Pace was never his strong suit, the former-Real Madrid regular using his reading of the game and his physicality to shut out opponents. Luis Suarez isn’t one to be heckled by such tactics though. The Uruguayan had thrived against English teams which attempted to crowd him out around the penalty area and his diverse skill-set makes him a prime match-winner.
Ably supported by Edinson Cavani, who himself is in good form, Portugal’s biggest challenge at Sochi will be to achieve that near-perfect defensive record they managed in France in 2016.
Fernando Santos vs Oscar Tabarez
Perhaps the most noteworthy of all duels in this fixture is the showdown between two of the finest tacticians to ever manage an international side — two managers who have already revolutionised the football setup in the countries they coach. If Tabarez changed the way Uruguay operated right from the grassroots level, Santos taught an incredibly talented Portugal side how to win by instilling a pragmatic approach in them.
Both the managers believe in the concept of proactive counter-attacking but how they react to the dynamic situations on Saturday night will determine their teams' fortune. Excelling in their man-management skills, they surely have the strategic know-how and they have already led their sides to continental glory; and simply an iota of sparked brilliance could decide the game today.
With a number of temperamental star players in either squad, the match could easily boil over to a dramatic fest and the team's disciplinary perspectives will play a role. The crunch knockout stage could be the last hurrah for Portugal’s golden generation while for Uruguay, this World Cup can be the reward of a decade-long tutelage. And it all commences at Sochi tonight.
Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.
Updated Date: Jun 30, 2018 12:08:01 IST