SAMARA, Russia (Reuters) - With an attack spearheaded by Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, Uruguay were expected to thrill at the World Cup, yet after three straight clean sheets in the group phase, it is their rock-solid rearguard that has impressed the most in Russia.
The South Americans boast one of the tournament’s most fearsome attacking partnerships, with Barcelona’s Suarez and Paris St Germain’s Cavani among the game’s most potent strikers.
Cavani, who was the top scorer in the World Cup’s South American qualifying competition with 10 goals, netted 40 in all competitions for PSG last season, while Suarez was on target 31 times for Barca.
The pair were predicted to shine at the World Cup, yet both have perhaps been overshadowed by Uruguay’s sterling defensive work.
Both were on the scoresheet as they beat Russia 3-0 to finish the group phase with a perfect three victories, yet Uruguay’s pragmatic approach has seemingly placed a greater focus on nullifying opponents rather than tearing them apart.
Having secured qualification with successive 1-0 wins over Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Uruguay claimed top spot in Group A by restricting a Russia side that had scored eight goals in two games to a handful of half chances in another shutout.
Having taken a 2-0 lead in the opening 23 minutes and seen their opponents reduced to 10 men before halftime, Uruguay took their foot off the gas, effectively killing the game rather than going for the jugular.
The result, achieved in stifling heat and without injured defensive leader Jose Gimenez, was Uruguay’s sixth successive clean sheet and underlined the importance coach Oscar Tabarez places on defense despite the attacking riches at his disposal.
“The holy grail of football is the word ‘balance’,” Tabarez told reporters in Samara.
“When we attack, we need to be able to attack, but this isn’t abstract — it is because ball possession has been recovered or from good defensive work. We work on balance all the time.”
Next up for Tabarez’s side is a Round of 16 encounter against Group B runners-up Portugal in Sochi on Saturday, where they will face a fired up Cristiano Ronaldo with his eyes set on the Golden Boot.
The Real Madrid forward, however, may find Uruguay a tougher nut to crack than he has faced so far in the tournament.
“What we have to do is impose our style on our opponents,” Tabarez added. “That is how you win. That is what you do at a World Cup.”
Reporting by Toby Davis; Editing by John O'Brien