Uruguay are the masters of ugly. Their style of play is defined by lining up 11 guys who want to sprint around for 90 minutes kicking the shit out of the ball and the opposition, taking the so-called beautiful game and shoulder-barging it into the muck and grime of the pitch, and trying to emerge from the ensuing chaos with one more goal and maybe a couple fewer bloody noses than their opponents. Today Uruguay succeeded in making their World Cup Round of 16 clash against Portugal just that kind of gloriously nasty contest, and so it was no surprise they won, 2-1.
More than many other squads in the tournament, Uruguay are a true team. For that reason, it does them a little bit of a disservice to single out one player above the others as the exemplary one. They defend as a team—starting at the back with arguably the best central defending duo in the world, Diego Godín and José Giménez, continuing up through a steely midfield quartet full of hard-nose runners who excel primarily at keeping the back line safe, and even in their forward line of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez, who are two of the hardest working strikers in the entire sport—and they attack as a team, if not by sending lots of numbers forward then by coordinating who does what to give the couple guys who do push ahead the freedom they need to score. Both when they score a goal themselves or when they keep one out, you can bet that one way or another most every player on the team had a hand in aiding the collective in achieving its objective.
Still, Cavani earned the props today as Uruguay’s main man. We’ll get to the goals eventually, since that’s what we’re all here for, but man, his defensive work was outstanding. Cavani pressed Portugal’s ball carriers high up the pitch, dropped deep to harry his opponents once they’d broken into the midfield, and even filled in along the back line at times when a defensive teammate found himself out of position. Only two players on the pitch had more tackles than Cavani’s three. He was everywhere. That a player who regularly scores 30-plus goals every season for his club has the grit, determination, and humility to spend all game running around like that on defense is a testament to what a great, selfless player Cavani is.
Cavani is a striker, though, and a striker’s main job is to get his team the goals. In that department, Cavani was even better than he was defensively. The PSG forward opened the scoring on the day with a powerful header (shoulderer?) in the seventh minute. Cavani hit an amazing cross-field pass from one wing to the other out to Suárez, who then sent a return pass of equal quality onto Cavani’s head/shoulder:
From that goal onward, Uruguay could focus on their biggest strength: fighting with all their might not to lose. They defended deep and hard, and kept Portugal from creating much of anything in a fist-fight of a first half. Uruguay maintained their counterattacking threat almost solely down to the efforts of the two-man wrecking crew that is their forward line, but most of the half was spent kicking the ball out from under the Portuguese players rather than booting it towards the Portuguese goal.
Portugal regrouped at halftime and came out looking much more threatening. Ten minutes into the second half, they leveled the score with a header from Pepe. It was fitting that Pepe, a master of shithousery himself and thus perfectly in his element in this match, was the Portuguese player to get on the scoresheet. However, the deadlock wouldn’t last long, as Cavani answered Pepe’s goal just seven minutes later with a gorgeous curling shot to put Uruguay back in the lead:
The last half-hour of play was tense. Portugal poured forward in hopes of tying things up again, and Uruguay dusted off every single shithouse trick in the book. Tons of time wasting, feigned injuries, barking at the refs for no real reason, charging into tackles that would be cardable offenses in most games, thumping clearances after clearances, throwing their bodies at the ball to block crosses and shots–the works. Portugal rained in crosses and shots, but none resulted in the goal they needed. In the end, Uruguay’s bastardly ways, coupled with a couple moments of genius, were enough to overcome Portugal. And nobody embodied how Uruguay almost literally fought their way to victory better than Cavani, who had done it all.