Luis Suarez strike can't mask Uruguay shortcomings in nervy win vs. Saudi Arabia
ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia -- Three quick thoughts on Uruguay 1-0 Saudi Arabia in Group A at the World Cup on Wednesday afternoon.
1. Suarez strike can't hide Uruguay shortcomings
Winning two World Cup matches, reaching the knockout stages, all while failing to impress seems fraught with contradictions, but that is essentially what Uruguay have achieved so far.
This was a match where Uruguay rarely found top gear. Maybe the heat -- the temperature at kickoff was 89 degrees Fahrenheit -- played a factor. Perhaps it was the knowledge that in Saudi Arabia, they were going up against an overmatched opponent. (The construction of Uruguay's midfield certainly points to this, but more on that later.) Regardless, Uruguay manager Oscar Tabarez will be hoping -- or perhaps demanding -- that his side improve their game ahead of the group finale against Russia.
At the least, Luis Suarez found the net again. Uruguay may have won their first match against Egypt, but the main talking point was how poorly Suarez (and to a lesser extent Edinson Cavani) played. The Barcelona forward squandered several clear-cut chances and given his undeniable importance to La Celeste, he needed to find some semblance of form.
For Uruguay's front-line tandem, a match against a Saudi Arabia side -- reeling from a 5-0 mauling at the hands of Russia -- awaited, and it provided at least a semblance of an antidote. That said, Suarez's 23rd-minute strike was an absolute gift. Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais missed completely an attempted punch from Carlos Sanchez's corner, allowing Suarez to side-foot the delivery into an open net.
That was one of the few bright spots for Uruguay in what was otherwise lacklustre first half. Saudi Arabia, eager to provide a better showing for their fans, largely controlled the proceedings, with a three-man midfield of Salman Al-Faraj, Abdullah Otayf and Taiseer Al-Jassam giving their Uruguay counterparts all they could handle. Had Hatan Bahbri been a bit more clinical with two first-half opportunities, the Saudis might well have found an equaliser.
The second half showed slight improvement from Uruguay as a tiring Saudi team became increasingly sloppy with their passes out of defence. Sanchez should have put the game away in the 62nd minute, but he could only head Cavani's pinpoint cross over the bar.
Cavani had a chance late to extend the lead but his shot following a long solo run was saved by Al-Owais.
Overall, this was a subpar performance from Uruguay. The good news is they know they can play better. Against an in-form Russia team they will have to.
2. Saudis improved, but still own worst enemy
"Competitiveness" was the byword at the prematch news conference from Saudi manager Juan Antonio Pizzi. He insisted that any talk of tactical changes was immaterial compared to what was really needed, which was a change in attitude.
Pizzi's charges -- which included four changes from the Russia game -- largely delivered. The aforementioned midfield trio did their bit to make life difficult for Uruguay, though Al-Jassam was forced to leave the match late in the first half with a hamstring injury. The appearance of Ali Al-Bulayhi in the back line resulted in a much more assured defensive performance.
Unfortunately, the Saudis' lack of relative high-level experience compared to their opponents revealed itself in critical moments. Al-Owais' error is one that is bound to get punished at a World Cup. The team's lack of composure in front of goal was also notable, undoing some approach work into the attacking third that was easy on the eye.
On the day, Saudi Arabia can say they acquitted themselves well. But the World Cup is unforgiving, and now the Saudis find themselves eliminated from the tournament with a game remaining.
3. Uruguay midfield need to show their quality
Tabarez made a calculated gamble in terms of his lineup for the match. Mindful of the upcoming game against Russia, he resorted to his old guard of 33-year-old Sanchez and 32-year-old Cristian Rodriguez at the wide midfield spots. Both are known for work rate rather than creativity.
On the surface, one could argue that it worked. Uruguay got the result they needed and rested some players, though they didn't pad their goal difference as much as they wished. Now Uruguay will need to defeat the hosts in their third and final group match in order to win the group. If that's to happen, they are going to need an improved performance from their midfield.
Granted, Uruguay has long tended to be industrious in their play, depending on a stout defence and the brilliance of Suarez and Cavani to get results. Cavani in fact might be the team's best creator when he drops into midfield, and the chance he set up for Sanchez that he squandered is an example of this.
One possible solution is to get 22-year-old Lucas Torreira on the field more. The imminent Arsenal signing has appeared in both matches at this World Cup, and got an extended runout against the Saudis. He had one shot in the 80th minute that Cavani nearly redirected into the net. While it seems a lot to ask of someone so young, he might be the man Tabarez turns to if a goal is needed later in the tournament.
Uruguay's defence is rock solid, and was again in this match. The ability of Cavani and Suarez, who was unlucky not to grab a double after his free kick was saved, is unquestioned. Getting a bit more mileage out of their midfield might be the difference between a deep tournament run and a round-of-16 exit.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.