Uruguay secured top spot in Group A on Monday with a comfortable 3-0 victory over World Cup hosts Russia.
A Luis Suarez free kick with just ten minutes on the clock set the tone for what was to follow, and once the South Americans had doubled their advantage midway through the first half via a Denis Cheryshev own goal, Uruguay were able to shut up shop against a Russian side playing the majority of the match with ten men. They did, however, still find time for Edinson Cavani to put the icing on the cake late on.
In the other game, meanwhile, Mo Salah had a chance to show off his ability with a fine finish as Egypt took on Saudi Arabia, but a penalty from Salman Al-Faraj and a stoppage-time winner from Salem Al Deswari meant that the Pharaohs left Russia without a point to their name.
Group A has come to a close, but there are still a number of lingering questions as two of the four teams involved walk through the door to the knockout stages.
Have Russia been found out against superior opposition?
For the rush to praise Russia for their opening two performances, it should be remembered that Saudi Arabia were a disaster and Egypt fell to pieces. The biggest test in this group was always going to come in the final match, and it was a test that Stanislav Cherchezov and his side did not pass.
Granted, they left out the likes of Aleksandr Golovin and Yuri Zhirkov with qualification already secured, and the sending off of Igor Smolnikov meant that they had to adopt a more conservative shape, but this performance was still much more akin to what had been expected of Russia going into this tournament.
As it stands, they will face Spain in the next round. After all of the early hype surrounding this side, how will they now approach going into another match where the opposition are ostensibly better than them?
Are Uruguay about to finally justify the hype?
The term ‘dark horse’ is an overused concept at this point, as any side with the attacking threat of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani should always be expected to do well. As such, it should be no surprise to see them in the next round.
However, this was the first match of the three that Oscar Tabarez’s side really clicked into gear. A late winner against Egypt and a gruelling 1-0 against Saudi Arabia did little to raise external confidence in this team, but this was much more of a commanding display. Crucially, it was one that also confirmed what this Uruguay side is all about – strong and tight at the back, and a nightmare at set pieces.
It’s a tactic that means that they have sailed through this group with three wins and three clean sheets. It’s not pretty, but it’s damn effective.
Have Suarez and Cavani finally clicked into gear?
Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani have been slow burners in this tournament so far, but this might have been the match when they finally settled. The former already had a goal with the winner against Saudi Arabia, but the free kick here really helped to banish the memory of his awful performance against Egypt.
For Cavani, meanwhile, the sense of relief with that late goal was palpable. The PSG striker had been determined to break his duck against Russia, to the point where he was trying way too hard and scuffing chances, and to finally bundle the ball home will have done wonders for his confidence.
Both strikers will now be keen to build on that form against Portugal(?), and, crucially, the fear will be gone from their game.
How much of a difference would a fully fit Mo Salah have made to this group?
With the pressure off, Mo Salah was able to finally showcase his tremendous ability with a beautifully-taken finish as Egypt took on Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately for the Liverpool forward, it came too late in the day to have a significant impact in this group – and it wasn’t even enough to earn the side a point as Saudi Arabia overturned the deficit to win 2-1.
Against the backdrop of a shoulder injury (not to mention the unpleasantness surrounding Salah being given the freedom of Chechnya), this tournament has pretty much been a total nightmare for Egypt’s star man. Had he been fit to face Uruguay in their opening clash, it could have influenced the result on the day and carved out a very different path for the African side.
Instead, Salah leaves Russia with two goals but a hatful of regrets.