Fearless Godin a throwback to Milanesque defending
His is not the first name you think in a match like this with so much attacking potential on show. Even with Mohammed Salah on the bench, you had Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, to name but two. And yet, it was Diego Godin, Uruguay's captain and rock in the defence, who made the difference in a match that was not decided till the last minute of regulation time. As Suarez and Cavani fluffed their chances, and as Egypt's confidence - and the noise created by their fans - grew, Godin's calm and decisive presence steadied nerves till Jose Gimenez's goal settled the result.
Back in 2003, I attended the Champions League final between Juventus and AC Milan. It was a fairly woeful game, with neither side scoring in 120 minutes, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that I was watching two of the best central defenders of their generation, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta. How they dealt with Juventus' attacking pair of David Trezeguet and Alessandro del Piero, with superb economy of effort and minimum fuss - they barely seemed to need to run, or even tackle, they were always in the right place at the right time, half a yard ahead of their opponents.
Godin himself would not expect to be included in that company, yet watching him left one with a similar sense of fulfillment. Here was a master at work. Tackling, blocking, intercepting; that was his bread and butter. There was a moment in injury time in the first half when Uruguay gave the ball away inside their own half and it fell to an Egypt player. He had open space ahead and Uruguay's defence was some distance away. It could have turned ugly but there was Godin, nipping in and closing down the attack.
The time to watch him is when the camera is off him - that is, when Uruguay have the possession and the play. Then, he's the farthest back, almost a sweeper, looking at the play from his vantage position, sizing up opportunities and threats, giving orders and advice. It's what gives him that half second, that extra yard when possession turns. And his smoothness when leaping in the air, even when up against a player taller than him, is Milanesque.
If that was all he did - shielding his keeper and covering for his back four - he'd make it to almost any team. Add to that his willingness, ability and confidence to move forward, with the ball and without. He can create goals and he can be at the end of crosses and corners to head them in. After breaking down that Egypt attack in the first half, Godin then ran with the ball till the opposite penalty area. There was another occasion, around the 38th minute, when Godin picked up the ball around 15 yards into his own half, weaved his way through Egypt's midfield and passed to Matias Vecino, who unfortunately was too slow to get to it.
Count the number of important, and late, goals he scores, which says as much about his spirit as about his skill. Most famously for Atletico Madrid against Barcelona in the 2013-14 La Liga season, the last match of the season at Camp Nou, when all Barca had to do was hold on to their first-half lead. Godin scored the equaliser - another header - and then marshalled the defence to see through the draw and claim the title. Or his 81st-minute winner against Italy in the last World Cup, which sent the Azurri home.
Part of his sense of command when playing for Uruguay stems from that fact that he and Gimenez, the goalscorer, are team-mates at Atletico Madrid, where they have been coached by Diego Simeone, no mean defensive player in his day. With a no-nonsense, uncompromising - hard, not dirty - approach, they have made Atletico one of the best defensive club sides in Europe. On Friday, they faced a far lesser threat - Egypt minus Mohamed Salah - and the World Cup gremlins started making their usual group-stage-upset noise. They didn't reckon with Diego Godin.