Updated: Jun 30, 2018
If ever two teams deserved each other more, it’s hard to remember, and as fans we can at least avoid the spectacle of two potential matches being mucked up; rather, we bottle it all up in one hot mess! Long before Suarez and Ronaldo, these two teams were best known on their respective continents as the sides who would play the dirtiest football to win a game, with Portugal’s injuring of Pele in the 1966 World Cup being the most famed example. Their teams have become more modern and at points more pleasing over the years, but Portugal’s reverted to a sour-faced, negative lot with a one (or two) man show at the top, while the “New Uruguay” isn’t quite the New Coke, but it’s still the team that no other team ever looks good against, as they are experts at breaking up rhythm and momentum, and always keep a compact shape. If we want a good match, pray that no team gets an early goal, because that will expedite one’s teams worst instincts and may be more than other can overcome
At least one if not both of these teams is going to get a dose of their own medicine, and some millions of viewers will get heaping serving of schadenfreude in the process.
Could it be salvaged by some magical moment? Whether a Ronaldo or Quaresma masterstroke, or a split second understanding between Cavani and Suarez that prises the defense open, something beautiful might well happen. Or not. More likely is plenty of men behind the ball, nippy ball-hawking, begging for spot kicks, and theatrical displays suggesting legs have been severed and eyes gouged during incidental contact. One writer’s consideration of this match alluded to the infamous 2006 “Battle of Nuremberg,” when Portugal and the Netherlands ruined what should have been a night of great football. This game, however, doesn’t have the midfield talent level to match that affair in the first place.
Both teams have world-class goal-scorers in Ronaldo and Suarez, respectively, though both a bit off their peak. Suarez is less capable of creating it on his own, but he’d still run over his grandmother to get it, and is perhaps the greatest poacher of his generation. No one scores as many different kinds of goals or arrives uncannily to the key spot. Ronaldo is more individual gunslinger--just needing the ball and he’ll do the rest, and nobody can really do it on his own like CR7. That, unfortunately, has left Portugal as a team slavishly devoted to delivering him the ball and hoping he will win the game; there’s been precious little creativity or even meaningful ownership outside of being pizza delivery boys to his Royal Abness, and woe to the fool who muffs his lines. They have stood out for the lack of creativity, basically defending and hoping they eventually spring Ronaldo.
Portugal do have one other breath-taking offensive talent, the aged Ricardo Quaresma, a cult-figure at Porto and Beskitas whose Romani descent has only accentuated his outsider legend status (and arguably contributed to bust-ups elsewhere). Quaresma was once considered to be in Ronaldo’s class, a player of rare touch and flamboyant elaborations, but it never quite panned out. He featured in qualifying but was dropped from the final World Cup squads in 2006, 2010, and 2014, though nicked the winner against Croatia in Portugal’s epic 2016 European Championship side. He’s driven disciplinarians to despair, ditched by Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona, Mourinho at Inter, and Big Phil Scolari for Portugal. Now, at 34, he’s finally in the Cup, and after almost snatching a winner v. Spain, he delivered a trivela golazo, a trademark outside-of-the-foot bender from long range to beat the Iranian keeper.
Playing him and Ronaldo at the same time means everyone else has to do a lot of running, because neither of the chaps are there for that pedestrian work, but it’s definitely a gear that few other teams seem to have in their back pocket. Meanwhile, Suarez does have some genuine synchronicity with Cavani. The PSG #9 is an intriguing player, large but still reasonably fleet, technically gifted and visually acute. He has a great work rate as well. He’s very streaky though, sometimes missing sitters, and has never really gotten hot for Uruguay in a tournament. Ronaldo’s certainly the superior player of the lot, even at 33, but it comes at much more of a cost for the team, while the Uruguayan pair offer relentlessness along with their substantial abilities.
Consistently over the past decade, Portugal have driven me a bit mad, just bunkered in, looking for crosses or any other way to find the King. The left back, Guerreiro, was overrun by Ambarat, perhaps the worst of any 1 v. 1 matchup I saw during the entire first round. The vilified Pepe is long in the tooth, always capable of some howling mistake of passion, though he and Jose Fonte (formerly of Southampton) have had a solid run manning the bunker, and they’ve been pulled out of the fire a few times by Rui Patricio, whom I’ve never rated very highly but has been highly effective thus far, including a brilliant Gordon Banks-esque save against Morocco. Wolverhampton fans are giddy but he will bring them back to earth soon enough.
Uruguay have sputtered against two unimpressive sides in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and finally came to a bit of life (if you can call a free kick and an own goal “life”) against Russia without its best players. When they really needed one against Egypt in the first game, they did create several excellent chances denied by superb goalkeeping; there’s plenty of rhythm between the two front men. I fancy their chances against Pepe and Fonte a good bit more than what Ronaldo will face. Godin and Gimenez are the centerback pair at Real’s crosstown rivals, Atletico Madrid, and they’ve been giving Ronaldo the business for years now, so much so that once Ronaldo took not one but two swings at Godin on a corner. Indeed, Real have won only one once in the last ten La Liga matches against Atletico, a record that Barcelona would envy. Godin is now in his third Cup, the bedrock of the side, and I think he should be getting paid for whatever hair growth product he’s been using. It’s working wonders, because I thought he was was an old man when he was 24; eight years later, he now looks 24. In Gimenez he has a powerful, quick partner, and I think the familiarity between the two is a huge plus. Caceres is a rock on the flank and Laxalt showed some spark on the left against Russia. Bottom line here is that I suspect that Uruguay’s front men match up better than Portugal’s and that’s where the game will likely hinge. Muslera is also a calm, trusted backstop behind them.
The midfields...well, Uruguay’s got a new generation that was supposed to make them a new, more aesthetically pleasing team as opposed to the series of hardmen who simply axed down those impudent enough to play soccer. Betancur has looked handy in linking the defense and attack, but nothing’s caught my eye among this group, no worthy enganche to really make the engine fire. Still, one senses that something better might be yet to come. Portugal's midfield has aged, with Moutinho and Joao Maria as two players once highly touted who feel far more complementary than authoritative. Bruno Fernandes comes highly rated but has shrunk thus far. Meanwhile, William Carvalho lumbers across the backline, with major buyers having all taken a good sniff and decided that they’re passing on the cost...though that’s apparently all changed since he and other players were attacked by...their own fans at Sporting Lisbon? Thugs sent by the club’s President? It’s perhaps the bizarrest football story I’ve read about in years. I suppose, then, that for Carvalho, Fernandes, Rui Patricio and Gelsen Martins, maybe playing with the national team passes as fun compared to working under an owner who’s been compared to Donald Trump. And yet still the long faces….
Finally, this looks like a game when tactical fouling will feature heavily, some tackles will be made to take a pound of flesh, and a lot of gamesmanship with the referee will take place. So who do we get? Mexico’s Cesar Ramos, who refereed...Brazil v. Switzerland! You can’t blame the Swiss goal on him (that’s VAR), but the 10 fouls on Neymar, even as he milked a few, certainly must be lingering in everyone’s mind. As much as any game, you have to be thinking "man sent off" in this one.
I don’t think we’ll get great soccer, but probably a golden moment or two, and lots of winces, pleas, scowls, and general villainy in a bad-tempered affair. If it goes to overtime, I like Uruguay’s younger legs to run away with it. I could also see a red card and full bunkering. How about Ronaldo gets a yellow, and kind of loses it, knowing that he can’t play in the next match and can see no way forward--but his team, secretly excited by the prospect, get perked up by the idea and catch the spirit of Euro ‘16?
Well, either 3-1 in overtime or 1-0, Uruguay? Let’s go with 3-1, overtime, Uruguay--that sounds like more fun. Enjoy the scowling!