World Cup Preview: Uruguay v France

Who? Uruguay - France
Where? Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod
When? July 6, 16:00 (CET local time)

Uruguay (Gilad Seroussi)

We are still on our journey! It was very difficult, Uruguay even conceded a goal for the first time in Russia 2018, but in the end the European champions couldn't breach the formidable Uruguayan defense that kept its marginal advantage until the final whistle. On we go to our next battle, and each time the bar is set higher, now facing the mighty French who sent Uruguay's neighbors home.

Tabarez is satisfied with the formation and style of play in the last two games; a combative take of the traditional Diamond formation, with Bentancur as the untraditional No. 10. But upfront there will probably be an important change, as it doesn't seem likely that Cavani, el Matador, will be fit for the important match. Maybe not in his most clinical version in the group stages, but Cavani is playing very well so far in the World Cup and scored the last 3 goals for Uruguay. In recent training sessions Stuani took Cavani's place alongside Suarez, and he will probably do so against France. While not as good as Cavani, Stuani had a terrific season in Girona, arguably the best in his career, and he will add protection when defending set pieces and threat in attacking set plays; something not to be treated lightly, as it's probably Uruguay's main threat apart from the quick transitions. 

Without El Matador, Laxalt's brilliant performance in the last couple of games will be even more crucial for Uruguay's quick attacking efforts. Another key player is Lucas Torreira, who will need to fight off, again, the opponent's midfield and attacking lines packed with quality and physically intimidating players (not only for the 1.78 meters youngster). He did really well before, but as I said the bar is set higher now.

If in the group stage I could have written about Uruguay under the new label of "favorites", this label is long gone by now. But they've won the respect of their opponents being a formidable, tough and organized team, where each player runs until he can't run anymore. Once again Uruguay will set off to prove it's not only about talent and individuals.  Vamos Uruguay noma!

France (Omri Tancman)

When thinking of one French player who could easily be integrated and blended within the Uruguayan national team, one name comes up immediately and that is Antoine Griezmann. For Griezmann the blending goes far beyond his ability. In his case, the blending is cultural and historical.

After being rejected from several clubs in France when he was younger, Griezmann decided to cross the border and take his chances with Spanish club Real Sociedad. The first coach who gave him any chances was a Uruguayan, Martin Lasarte. Furthermore, one of his closest teammates at the time, who used to drive him to practices was Uruguayan either, Carlos Bueno. Bueno and Griezmann have established friendly relationship, and one of their current results is Griezmann’s habit to drink Mate, the famous South American drink.

But Griezmann’s ties to Uruguay do not end with his period in Sociedad. Since 2014 he is collaborating with Uruguay’s starting center backs, Godin and Jimenez. Apparently, these close ties and maybe somewhat South American fighting mentality of Griezmann, enabled him to even tweet some cheerful tweets supporting his fellow Uruguayan teammates which will become rivals on Friday.

With the last two meetings in world cups between France and Uruguay ending scoreless, perhaps the best man to break the draught is the one who knows best is opponents from the inside. In this case it is Greizmann.

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World Cup Preview: Uruguay v Portugal

Who? Uruguay - Portugal
Where? Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi
When? June 30, 20:00 (CET local time)

Uruguay (Gilad Seroussi)

First goal completed, finishing first in the group stage. Not a goal but always nice doing so with 3 wins and without conceding even one goal. Now, with the level of resistance increasing, Uruguay will need to keep the good aspects going and improve the other in order to win one more battle.

The best performance so far was in the last game, when Tabarez gave up on the idea of controlling the tempo of the match and played to the strengths of the squad. 4-3-1-2 formation, with a combative trio in the middle, Bentancur a step forward closer to Cavani and Suarez, and Laxalt supporting the front line from the left band. It appears that el Maestro liked it, as the same players who faced Russia will face Portugal next, apart from the likely return of injured centre-half Josema Gimenez. If Gimenez will be ruled out, Coates will take his place. Both Laxalt and Torreira, in their World Cup starting lineup debut, played really well. The first, running up and down the line being a non-stop headache for the Russians, resulting in a red card early in the game and Cheryshev's own goal. The second, taking control of the middle of the field, gaining possession, running the plays and lighting the imagination of Arsenal's fans hoping to see the deal sealed. The only down side of the new formation was Bentancur who looked a bit uncomfortable in his new position. If needed, the more natural No. 10 of the squad, De Arrascaeta, will be happy to come from the bench to replace Juve's youngster.   

On Saturday evening, afternoon in Uruguay, thousands of Uruguayos in Russia and 3.5 million back home and around the world will stand behind their 11 guerreros. Most of them will not expect lovely football or flashy tricks, nor will they demand a show of superiority. They will want to see the players in celeste living up to the ethos of the Garra Charrua, often misinterpreted as only playing dirty or aggressive, and fighting off the European champions Portugal with all they got until the last whistle. Hopefully, after the whistle la Celeste will go throw forward its next battle in Russia.

Portugal (Yossi Medina)

It was hard, but in the end, Portugal completed the group stage with the spot for the knockout stage. They were one missed shot away from unbelievable lost to Iran. After the final whisle, nobody really remember that, as Fernando Santos and his players will play at the round of 16.

At the last match, a veteran player showed once again how much experience he brings to the team. Ricardo Quaresma is 34 years old but still shows his talent when it is necessary. He doesn't scored too much in the national team, but he knows the right moment to do so. Two years ago, while playing against Croatia in the Euro round of 16, he scored the winning goal at the 117th minute. Against Iran he scored another important goal that worth a lot for Portugal.

Although Portugal played some World Cup games, it will be just their third meeting against South American team. They played twice in the past against Brazil and didn't lost. Uruguay can be a different challenge for Portugal, as they are bringing their fighting spirit.

After missing the knockout stage in 2014 and being eliminated in the round of 16 in 2010, Portugal wants to get back to the top 8 of the tournament. Uruguay wouldn't be an easy opponent, but Portugal is well known as a team that can make this kind of games to possible.

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World Cup Preview: Uruguay v Russia

Who? Uruguay - Russia
Where? Samara Arena, Samara
When? June 25, 16:00 (CET local time)

Uruguay (Gilad Seroussi)

La Celeste already won its place in the next phase before even playing their last match in the group stage. Yes, it is happy rare days in Uruguay. But after a decent performance in the first game the team didn't play well in the second one, and Tabarez is still searching for the right formula.

Facing the explosive host team, Uruguay are going to try a different game plan; no more trying to be the initiating side, but back to the familiar style of a team that lets the opponent take the initiative and then striks with quick counter attacks. The injured Josema Gimenez will probably be replaced with Sebastian Coates, playing alongside Godin and Caceres in a 3 man backline. Laxalt and Nandez will be the wide players, the position causing the biggest headache to Tabarez, with the second designated specifically to stopping Russian winger Cheryshev. While Laxalt will be very familiar with that role, the same he is completing in Genoa, Nandez is still struggling playing wide. Another change will be Lucas Torreira debut in the starting lineup of Uruguay, adding more vertical play to Vecino and Bentancur in the middle of the field. Upfront no changes; Suarez will lead the line and alongside him Cavani will look for his first goal in the World Cup.

Don't expect sexy football from Uruguay, unlikely any change in formation and lineup will do it, as they will try to be formidable in the back as they've been so far, and more clinical upfront. As the great Edinson Cavani put it: "Our joy is from giving all we got on the pitch". I wish la Celeste will enjoy it again.  

Russia (Eden Roitfarb)

The Russians have qualified from a group stage for the first time since the 1986 World Cup, then still known as the USSR. Amazingly, Stanislav Cherchesov’s men have produced another impressive attacking performance, this time dismantling Egypt 3-1. Again, Russia beat an Arab team, but unfortunately for them, Uruguay come from South America and are a whole different challenge. With two hard fought 1-0 wins, Oscar Tabarez’s team almost look like the international version of Atletico Madrid, a team you never want to play against in an important game.

With that in mind, it is very likely that an even tougher opponent would wait in the next round – Portugal or Spain are favorites to qualify from Group B, which faces Group A in the next round. The exact order would only be known after Russia would play, so it would be impossible to predict beforehand which spot would be more appealing. Therefore, Russia would want to get the best result possible, and a draw would be enough to secure first place.

One of the topics discussed around the team lately is the alleged suggestions by foreign journalists that there might be cases of doping within the squad. This is due to the surprising two victories, and also because the Russian players ran the greatest distance on pitch than any other team in the tournament. In response, team doctor Eduard Bezuglov said that his players undergo twice as many drug tests than other teams, and that they are in good shape because of their own training and the support of the whole country – which helps them perform well. Undoubtedly, Russia would need to work even harder to compete with Uruguay.

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World Cup Preview: Uruguay v Saudi Arabia

Who? Uruguay - Saudi Arabia
Where? Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don
When? June 20, 17:00 (CET local time)

Uruguay (Gilad Seroussi)

La Celeste has won the first battle, in hope for many to come, with Josema Gimenez's powerful header hitting the Egyptian net very late in the game. It wasn't easy, nor was it pretty, but if it was so it wouldn't have been Uruguay right?

Maybe it wasn't the performance many hoped to see from Uruguay, especially with the unfamiliar title of group favorites and promising young talent in the squad, but for Edinson Cavani it was a positive one: "We created 5 scoring chances and the keeper (El Shenawy) was the MVP, what's not positive about it?" In addition, the defence was formidable as always, keeping the Egyptians far from Muslera's goal for the best part of the match. But Suarez forgot his shooting boots and El Shenawy dressed up as Superman, so Uruguay suffered till the end.  While it might not have been a poor performance, Tabarez knows he needs to change and mix things up, especially in midfield where the new guys didn't win his trust. Nandez looked out of position playing along the line, not for the first time, and De Arrascaeta didn't support the strikers as well as hoped. Both were subbed before the hour mark.

For today's game Tabarez is expected to drop Nandez and De Arrascaeta from the starting lineup, for more experienced and natural wide players Pato Sanchez and Cebolla Rodriguez. On Friday those changes worked well for Uruguay, increasing the threat on the opponent's defence from wide areas and specifically for scoring the winner; as set piece specialist Sanchez was the one to deliver the assist. With these changes Uruguay will play with seven players over 30 years old in the starting lineup, but Tabarez denies he's looking for more experienced players and says it's all about the current form.

Now it's time for the best 11 footballers Tabarez choose to win another battle in Russia 2018, and I just wish it won't be as stressing as it was on Friday. Uruguay noma!  

Saudi Arabia (Yossi Medina)

Less than a week has passed since their 0:5 defeat against Russia and the Saudis feel that they are on the road for a massive failure in this World Cup campaign.

It didn't took long until Turki Al Sheikh made a statement about this game. Al Sheikh recorded himself blaming the players for this poor match and asked for forgiveness from the Saudi Prince, who travelled to Moscow and watched that game. A few months after the bizarre deal with Spain, Al Sheikh seems to be hopeless with the Saudi football future.

If you thought that the humiliation feeling will end quickly, the Saudi FA gave us a reminder that everything is possible. Three players have been penalized by them, goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf, striker Mohammad Al-Sahlawi and defender Omar Hawsawi, and it's still unclear whether they will be available for the match.

The Saudis faced another problem, as their airplane caught fire while the team traveled to Rostov-on-Don. The FA said it happened due to an engine failure, but at least they landed safely in their destination.

Landing while your airplane is burning and say that everything is fine, that's the complete story of Juan Antonio Pizzi and his players. Even though they have no chance to win this game, the Saudis will have to do their best if they don't want another humiliation like in Moscow.

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World Cup Preview: Egypt v Uruguay

Who? Egypt - Uruguay
Where? Central Stadium, Yekaterinburg
When? June 15, 14:00 (CET local time)

Egypt (Uri Levy)

The past three weeks in Egypt seemed like eternity. Since Mohamed Salah has dislocated his shoulder the entire nation got into a post traumatic shock. Everyone was horrified with their star player’s future & his chances to take part in the World Cup matches against Uruguay & Russia.

On Thursday afternoon Egypt received the encouraging news they all were waiting for. Coach Hector Cúper declared that Mohamed Salah will take part in their first match against Uruguay, after being almost 100% fit, only three weeks after his injury.

While the majority of the Egyptian fans are terrified of the thought of their team playing without Liverpool’s Egyptian king, the Pharaohs’ fans should put their beliefs in the likes of Mahmoud Trezeguet from Kasimpasa, Abdalla Said from Al-Ahli Jeddah, Mahmoud Kahraba and Marwan Mohsen. None of them is a big name in Salah’s scale but they all decent footballers indeed.

Egypt will look to grab a point against Uruguay, what will be counted as a huge achievement for the Middle Eastern nation. With Salah on the field, and support of 100 million Egyptians worldwide, the Pharaohs will look to make the unexpected - take points from one of the world’s top teams.

Uruguay (Yossi Medina)

Oscar Tabárez knows what is the World Cup better than anyone else in the Uruguay national team. This is his fourth World Cup and he would like to keep his perfect record of qualifying to the knockout stage.

In this group, Egypt may be the only team to challenge Uruguay in terms of international players. With four players that made more than 100 caps and two more that may join them during the group stage (Luis Suárez and Fernando Muslera), Uruguay is fielding a well experienced team that will be the favourite in such clash.

Even the players of Uruguay knows how strong their squad is. In the last press conference before the match, Diego Godin said that the Uruguayan preparation for the match does not depend on a single player. Except from the leaders, watch out for some younger and talented players such as Giorgian De Arrascaeta, 24-years-old midfielder who plays for Cruzeiro and impressed at the friendly match against Uzbekistan.

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The New Fighters

As a fan of La Celeste I'm in unknown territory a few days before the 2018 World Cup. This feeling is probably shared with many Uruguayos today, maybe apart from those who watched football before the 70's. The heroic performance in the 2010 World Cup and winning the Copa America a year later, strengthened the believe that La Celeste can achieve almost everything with the character and stability shown under the legendary Maestro Tabarez's guidance. This time the level of optimism is even higher and Uruguay is marked as the favorite team in Group A and more than usual is referred to as a team who will reach the final stages. I think it's because the current squad has more talent than the ones who did so great before. Alongside this new talent, Uruguay has more depth in the squad, and various options to mix formations and style of play.

The defence is tough as usual with Atletico Madrid's duo Godin and Josema Gimenez forming a formidable defence no striker would like to play against. The frontline is packed with heavy artillery as Suarez and Cavani leading the line and a backup from Stuani and young Maxi Gomez, both tired of scoring goals in La Liga this season. But a formidable defence and lethal strikers are not new for Uruguay in the last decade, although it's rare to see so many players in optimal conditions, so what has changed? Almost the entire midfield from the last World Cup has changed, with Cebolla Rodriguez the last survivor, and the new players to lead it are much more exciting talentwise. It's Bentancur, Torreira, De Arrascaeta, Nandez (my personal favorite), Laxalt (option for both fullback and winger roles), under the guidance of more experienced Vecino, that makes me believe Uruguay can achieve even more.

Yet, I'm a little bit concerned. maybe because I'm not use to this "favorite tag" or expectations to play "good" football and not only bring good results. Uruguay's greatest achievements in my lifetime weren't as a result of superior football as it was for character, toughness, togetherness. You can sum up it in one local term missing the ness ending, explaining the winning against all odds, the Garra Charrua. Most of the players in the squad were like el Ruso Perez rather Forlan. Now this is shifting and while mostly regarded as positive, I'm slightly worried that the talented youngsters will not be able to achieve what the former squad, with less talent but a lot of this Garra Charrua fighting spirit, achieved. Or maybe it's just me, wanting to be the underdog again and idealizing the past…

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