Monday 24 September 2018

Turbo-charged Suarez takes wind out of Russian sails

Uruguay 3 Russia 0

Russia's goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev (L) reacts as Luis Suarez celebrates Uruguay's second goal. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Russia's goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev (L) reacts as Luis Suarez celebrates Uruguay's second goal. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Oliver Brown

If the airless sensation inside the space-age Samara Arena arose in part from the sopping evening humidity, then it also reflected the oxygen sucked with dramatic suddenness from Russia's exuberant World Cup campaign.

Having glided so serenely into the last 16, the hosts smashed head-first here into the reality of their own limitations, as a Uruguay side turbocharged by Luis Suarez put them to the sword with a ruthless flourish.

There had been suggestions that Vladimir Putin might swing by this game for another dose of reflected glory, but ultimately he did well to stay away.

While the Sbornaya had quickened pulses and raised eyebrows with their constant running en route to two stirring victories, they slipped back against Uruguay into the leaden displays of old.

They did not look like the same team who had demolished Saudi Arabia and Egypt at this tournament, but they did bear an uncanny resemblance to the side who had lost to Austria just a few weeks before.

Russia had the luxury of knowing that they had already eclipsed all public expectations, and it showed.

Russia's Igor Smolnikov walks off the pitch dejected after being sent off during their last group A match against Uruguay at the Samara Arena. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Russia's Igor Smolnikov walks off the pitch dejected after being sent off during their last group A match against Uruguay at the Samara Arena. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

On their first appearance in Samara, they encountered febrile partisan support but could do nothing to reciprocate, folding weakly as soon as Suarez ignored some wrestling in the box to dispatch his free-kick low to Igor Akinfeev's left.

With chastening haste, Russia came to understand their team's key flaws: that they had a goalkeeper hardly blessed with the best decision-making skills and a centre-back, in Sergei Ignashevich, nearing his 39th birthday.

The malaise did not end there. Denis Cheryshev turned fall guy when Diego Laxalt's strike looped off his body and beyond the clutches of Akinfeev.

As a contest, the match was effectively killed off inside 23 minutes, although Igor Smolnikov compounded his team-mates' predicament when, showing no caution in light of his previous yellow card, he scythed down Laxalt in full flight to be duly sent off.

Fyodor Kudryashov and Uruguay's Nahitan Nandez battle for possession. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Fyodor Kudryashov and Uruguay's Nahitan Nandez battle for possession. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Stanislav Cherchesov, Russia's smouldering bruiser of a coach, looked more thunderous than ever, although he did manage a moment of levity in the press conference, facing down his grim-faced inquisitors. He parted with the words: "That's it? No applause? No nothing?"

A few seconds later, he decided to applaud himself.

In the circumstances he could be forgiven a little gallows humour. It is not even a fortnight since he took a congratulatory telephone call from Putin after an opening 5-0 win, but it must now seem half a lifetime ago.

Uruguay were simply too quick, too elusive, too efficient for Russia to defy their detractors a third straight time.

Edinson Cavani taps in Uruguay's third goal. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Edinson Cavani taps in Uruguay's third goal. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

While Suarez deserved kudos for his seventh World Cup goal in national colours - only Oscar Miguez, whose last appearance on this stage came in 1954, has more for La Celeste - this was also a result built from the back.

Diego Godin showed precisely how he has carved a reputation as arguably the world's most consistent defender. Even with the loss Jose Gimenez, his usual accomplice for both his country and Atletico Madrid, he never looked like being outwitted here. With a sixth shut-out in a row, Uruguay equalled a record that they last set in 1970.

"For the first few matches, you're tense, and you don't want to make any mistakes," said Suarez, clutching his man-of-the-match award.

"One mistake can be very expensive. This time, we came to the pitch with a different attitude and perspective, and that made us handle the pressure better."

No wonder his coach, Oscar Tabarez, could scarcely stop smiling. "We won by a large margin but I like the fact that we didn't concede," he said. "We could have won by more - sometimes the timing wasn't perfect. But for me, the holy grail of football is balance."

Edinson Cavani celebrates with Uruguay captain Diego Godin after scoring their third goal. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Edinson Cavani celebrates with Uruguay captain Diego Godin after scoring their third goal. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Even though 68 years have elapsed since Uruguay last won a World Cup, they should be considered the greatest threat in the knockout phase, even to the big beasts.

As for Russia, yes, their team surpassed themselves to avoid the ignominy of a first-round exit. But the scale of this defeat told much about the task they face to sustain the party much further. (© The Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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