France show guile and grit in beating Uruguay to reach World Cup semifinal
NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia -- Three quick thoughts from France's 2-0 win over Uruguay to reach the World Cup semifinals.
1. France are closing in on glory
Two years after losing the European championships final on home soil, France is now just two wins from claiming an even bigger prize. And while Friday's 2-0 quarterfinal victory over Uruguay didn't have the flair or flash or glittering goals of their fightback against Argentina one round earlier, the French will not complain. After all, a World Cup semifinal awaits.
Getting there required a grittier performance. Uruguay is always up for a tight, cagey affair, all the more so without their injured forward Edinson Cavani. But goals from Raphael Varane on a crafty header and Antoine Griezmann on a woeful mistake by Uruguay goalkeeper Fernando Muslera left the South Americans punchless and, in the end, on their way home.
France, on the other hand, goes to St. Petersburg, continuing through this gauntlet of elite teams featured on their side of the bracket. After wins over Argentina and Uruguay, now they must beat either Brazil or Belgium if they hope to reach a second straight major final.
If the group stage was underwhelming for France, capped by that ugly 0-0 draw with Denmark, the knockout rounds have displayed the French mettle. Their depth of talent was showcased in the rally against Lionel Messi and Argentina, and their scrappiness featured here. Kylian Mbappe, so speedy against the Argentines, was bottled up by Diego Laxalt (and usually a few others), so France took a different tack.
After Rodrigo Bentancur gave away a free-kick just outside the penalty area shortly before half-time, Griezmann stood over the ball while his teammates lined up on the far side. Griezmann then looped in a dangerous cross and Varane, who had stutter-stepped just so, slipped in front and popped his neck around the ball. It wasn't violently powerful but it was in just the right spot. Muslera's dive was futile.
France continued to drive the play early in the second half but Uruguay was just starting to show some signs of life when Muslera's gaffe broke their spirits. Griezmann couldn't have had much hope when he launched a shot straight at the goalkeeper from outside the area, but Muslera seemed caught between whether he should punch the ball or catch it. Ultimately he did neither, and the ball trickled into the net as Diego Godin, Uruguay's captain -- and Griezmann's closest friend at Atletico Madrid -- collapsed.
In the moment, Griezmann tempered his celebrations, showing respect to Godin and Uruguay, which he reveres, but at the final whistle there was plenty of joy. And why not? For Griezmann, a goal and an assist. For France, another step closer.
2. A tale of two goalkeepers
Much was made about the scorers in this game -- Cavani, Griezmann, Luis Suarez, Mbappe, Paul Pogba -- but the story of the match may best be told through its goalkeepers.
Just a few minutes before half-time, Varane's header nestled into the side netting as Muslera dived helplessly after it. Could he have done better? It was hard to be critical. But then, at this point in a World Cup, excellence is often required, and just a minute later, France's Hugo Lloris demonstrated exactly that.
In an odd coincidence, Uruguay gained a free-kick on the far side that led to a floating ball just in front of the area and a header seemingly on its way to the exact same place that Varane's had just gone. Martin Caceres, the Uruguyan defender, surely thought he had evened the game but Lloris, France's captain, had more to his dive than Muslera. The Tottenham keeper was at full stretch and managed to tip the ball just wide.
Then, in a brave follow-up, he dove straight at Godin's feet as Godin blasted his follow-up over. It was, by any measure, one of the saves of the tournament.
If that comparison wasn't enough, Muslera further made clear the disparity between him and Lloris with his gaffe in the second half. Griezmann's shot was speculative at best, and replays showed there wasn't much spin on the ball either. Muslera, who plays for Galatasaray, simply made a terrible mistake on a night when his opposite number was flawless.
3. Cavani's absence proves too much for Uruguay
The build-up to the match for Uruguay had focused almost entirely on Cavani, who scored twice against Portugal but also sustained a calf injury that left him limping off the field before full-time. What followed was several days of "will he or won't he?" and Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez was clearly frustrated about the hysteria surrounding his player. At a news conference on Thursday, Tabarez chastised reporters for rampant speculating about Cavani and said his striker was "concentrating on his dreams and his hopes, and that's what he's doing right now."
There was always a feeling, though, that the turnaround of a knockout tournament was going to be too much and that was how it played out: Cavani was on the bench and Cristhian Stuani, a 31-year-old who plays for Girona, partnered Suarez up front.
The partnership was a clear step down. Without Cavani, Uruguay lacked cohesion in their attack as well as any sort of cutting edge in front of goal. Suarez floated for much of the game, only occasionally making threatening runs and more than once barking at Stuani, who looked overmatched.
It was a tepid end to a quiet tournament for Suarez, who had his infamous handball in 2010 and even more infamous bite in 2014. This time, there was no bad behavior for the Barcelona forward but also not much good to speak of either. He finished his World Cup with just two goals, one against Russia and one against Saudi Arabia.
As a team, Uruguay will always have its knockout of Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal in the round of 16, but given Cavani's injury, they will surely leave Russia wondering what might have been.
Sam Borden is a Global Sports Correspondent for ESPN, also covering soccer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamBorden.