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France-Uruguay Preview: Step Inside the Squeezer

Club teammates face off in a match that will test whether France can withstand Uruguay's defensive grinder, while one wonders how Suarez can smash and grab a winner.

The last 5 matches between France-Uruguay Male National Sides:

France 0 Uruguay 1 (2013)

France 0 Uruguay 0 (2012)

France 0 Uruguay 0 (2010)

France 0 Uruguay 0 (2008)

France 0 Uruguay 0 (2002)

That’s right: 5 matches, 1 goal by both teams, and it wasn’t scored by France. Yes, of course this was pre-Mbappe, and includes a U-20 match (though with Umtiti, Thauvin, Gimenez, Betancourt and Laxalt), but it points to a central truth: Uruguay don’t give up anything cheap, and not much expensive, either. They’ve conceded only once so far, on the Pepe header against Portugal, and Manager Oscar Tabarez, “The Teacher," has found a diamond 4-4-2 that has proved stifling. The shift brought in the pacy left back Diego Laxalt, and one is tempted to think that Tabarez was doing a test run for operation Mbappe. The sky blue men took Ronaldo out of the last match with barely a whimper, mind you.

Uruguay’s defensive strength stems from the great familiarity of the centerback pairing of Godin and Gimenez, who work together at Atletico Madrid, supplemented by the versatile and unforgiving Martin Caceres who can play anywhere on the back line. The midfield has underperformed, relative to the pre-Cup hype, but maintain the Uruguayan tradition of squeezing space. They will be on full lockdown mode, I imagine, focused on denying entry passes to Griezemann and Mbappe, and harrying Pogba and Kante. Mbappe in particular will attract a swarm; I don't see them letting him get loose on the counter like he did against Argentina. Suarez of course will be in full predation mode, but without Cavani the task is much more difficult, for the French centerbacks are a cut above what Uruguay have yet seen, and Stuani is not a compelling substitute. Without Cavani, it also makes it particularly hard for them to bring Muslera’s and others’ clearances under control and to give the defensive shifting a rest.

PSG mates unfortunately unlikely to cross paths due to Cavani's calf injury.

The other, even perhaps greater strength, is Tabarez and the coherent identity that he has sculpted into Uruguayan football since 2006 (and before, really), on the one hand, and France's seeming lack of cohesion. The maestro seems to be built for the kind of long-term nature of a national team coach , where one is always involved with players from a very young age, and if successful, create a development system that molds talent to particular structures. Uruguay know exactly who they are, and trust Tabarez implicitly and explicitly. France, on the other hand, seem to have a bunch of proper lads, really a nice group of guys from what I can see, but they don’t perform in any consistent manner; lineups have shifted more from searching than tweaking, and they seem a bit more like an NBA all-star team than a kiln-seared national squad. Giroud’s inclusion in the starting eleven, for example, was introduced in the second match, and entirely changes how the team plays. Deschamps is not a neophyte, but one still gets the sense of a luscious dripping of individual talent without a truly welded frame in which to carry them.

Atletico teamates: Godin is the Godfather of Griezemann's child. It will be interesting watching good friends in the tensest of competitions.

France knows they will lack space in which to play, and we’ll see if they have the patience to deal with it. Pogba’s great weakness, to me, is playing the speculative pass too frequently, looking for the big play when the small one has to do. It will be up to Griezemann to find some gaps in which to pick the ball up, and perhaps Pogba will succeed more by running into the box than threading the ball into it. France seems likely to start Corentin Tolisso for the yellowed-out Blaise Matuidi, and I’m hoping Tolisso shows some of the tantalizing quality that he evinced at Bayern this year. Though he's looked ill at ease thus far, he has the capacity for the killer pass and may get a bit less urgent attention from Uruguay given the constellation around him. I expect Deschamps to make the first moves with subs; I have no idea if they will be the right ones. Steven Nzonzi comes aboard if they’re up, Dembele if they’re down, I’d guess, but from what I’ve seen Dembele and Mbappe really must occupy the same space to be successful and thus are redundant--and Mbappe’s clearly the superior player. Hard not to think that Adrien Rabiot wouldn’t be useful now, but he didn’t make the cut. Look, too, for Benjamin Mendy at left back if France is chasing a goal.

Suarez and Umtiti are likely to get very close on Friday, but absent the smiles for the Barcelona teammates.

In some respects, I’d like to see France move on to meet Brazil, as that would be the ultimate open-ended game, whereas, in a sense, every game with Uruguay is a similar one: no one looks good against them, and they tend to dictate how the game is played, which is its own kind of beauty. At the same time, how do you root against Tabarez, cane and neuropathy chipping at his body, and a country of 3.5 million people?

With a healthy Cavani, I’d go Uruguay 1-0 but without, I have real doubts about how Uruguay nick a goal. But it will be difficult for France to score as well. So, France in extra-time, or Uruguay in PKs? Given this tournament, let's go 0-0 with PKs, Uruguay. It will be a great test of talent v. cohesion. Nestor Pitana of Argentina gets the referee’s whistle (you might remember him from Croatia v. Denmark); he seems to have the necessary authoritative sense to keep a lid on what is likely to have a few hot moments.