An eagerly-awaited clash of two talented and tempestuous heavyweights failed to meet expectations but the repercussions could prove fatal for Uruguay. Portugal eased into the last 16 courtesy of two goals from Bruno Fernandes to leave the South Americans needing to beat Ghana on Friday to have a chance of joining them. Revenge will be high on the agenda for Ghana.
Fernandes scored two second half goals – though Cristiano Ronaldo continued to claim the first as his own long after the final whistle – and could have had a hat-trick during a relatively tame encounter. Uruguay are now bottom of the group and need maximum points against Ghana, who they infamously knocked out of the 2010 World Cup courtesy of Luis Suárez’s handball and Asamoah Gyan’s penalty miss, plus a favour from Portugal against South Korea to avoid an ignominious early exit.
Uruguay committed the first foul inside 25 seconds and collected the first booking after only six minutes, when Rodrigo Bentancur foolishly fouled Rúben Dias as they chased a harmless ball down the channel. But a game simmering with needle and gamesmanship this was not despite Pepe playing and the late introduction of Suárez. There was little sign of urgency from Uruguay either as they sought their first win of the tournament, with Diego Alonso’s side content to let Portugal dominate possession before shutting down their creative talents in numbers. José Maria Gimenéz, part of a three-man central defence that was tightly supported by Uruguay’s wing-backs, rarely left the side of João Félix or Bernardo Silva in the first half. Hurting Portugal on the break or from a set-piece was the clear strategy.
Portugal were sharp and positive from the first whistle but Uruguay’s disciplined defence remained compact. William Carvalho volleyed over after being teed up delightfully by a flick off Cristiano Ronaldo’s shoulder. Gimenéz threw himself in the way of a Félix shot when Pepe and Bernardo Silva combined to dissect Uruguay’s midfield and Ronaldo, falling backwards, was unable to apply a clinical second touch to João Cancelo’s pin-point cross to the back post. Otherwise, and despite Portugal’s dominating possession, Uruguay goalkeeper Sergio Rochet was untroubled throughout the first half. Silva could have changed that when found in space inside the area by Fernandes and Nuno Mendes but on both occasions his first touch was found wanting.
Alonso replaced 35-year-old Suárez with 35-year-old Edinson Cavani with the Valencia striker partnering Darwin Núñez in the Uruguayan attack. The pair were completely isolated for the opening half an hour until finally their teammates decided to venture forward in support. Bentancur was to the fore, and the Tottenham midfielder should have opened the scoring following a fine run through the heart of the Portugal defence. Collecting the ball inside his own half, Bentancur drove through midfield before weaving his way around weak challenges from Carvalho and Dias. There was one job left to complete but, as Diogo Costa advanced, he shot straight at the Portugal goalkeeper who saved with his thigh before gathering at the second attempt. The faces said everything. Bentancur looked to the sky and cursed his finish. Dias and Carvalho glared at each other over their lack of protection.
Portugal finally found holes in the Uruguay defence after the restart, but not before a lone and brave pitch invader ran onto the pitch carrying a rainbow flag in protest at Qatar’s discriminatory laws. The protestor sported a Superman t-shirt that also had ‘Save Ukraine’ printed on the front and ‘Respect for Iranian Women’ on the back. He was wrestled to the ground by two security guards before others helped escort him away.
When the game re-started, Portugal took control. Silva opened up Uruguay for the first time when releasing Félix but the Atletico Madrid forward could only find the side-netting. Moments later, the blessed relief of the breakthrough the game desperately needed.
It came from the deft right foot of Fernandes who floated a beautiful cross from the left behind Uruguay’s backline. Ronaldo read the Manchester United midfielder’s intention perfectly and, played onside by right wing-back Guillermo Varela, soared to send a glancing header into the far corner. Or so everyone would have imagined from Ronaldo’s celebrations. Replays showed he never made contact and Fernandes was rightly awarded the goal. Ronaldo stared at a giant screen with a look of amusement and amazement as his ninth World Cup goal was chalked off.
Uruguay responded well and were desperately unfortunate not to level when substitute Maxi Gómez hit a post following good work on the edge of the Portugal penalty area and with Costa well beaten. Suárez, who was arguing with the fourth official before even setting foot on the pitch, was inches away from converting Giorgian De Arrascaeta’s free-kick at the near post.
Their misfortune dragged into stoppage time when Portugal were awarded a ridiculously harsh penalty after Fernandes had nut-megged Gimenéz on the edge of the area. The ball struck the defender’s trailing hand as he dived into the challenge and, following a pitch-side review, the Iranian referee pointed to the spot amid furious and understandable Uruguay protests. Fernandes kept his cool and with a hop, skip and a jump, sent Rochet the wrong way from the spot. Fernandes was denied a hat-trick by the legs of the Uruguay keeper and a post in the closing seconds.