Determined Uruguay ready to spoil French party
Antoine Griezmann (Getty)
Nizhniy Novgorod - Streetwise and tough yet with a razor-sharp edge, Uruguay have moved serenely into the Soccer World Cup quarter-finals, ignoring the chaos that has swamped former winners Argentina and Spain.
Uruguay have shown in Russia they are extremely difficult to beat yet sometimes underwhelming - all things you could have predicted from La Celeste before the World Cup.
A slow start and an 89th minute winner that gave them a forgettable 1-0 win over a Mohamed Salah-less Egypt in their first game, has now given way to a campaign with real hope of winning the World Cup.
With a defence built around the central pairing of Jose Gimenez and the vastly experienced 32-year-old Diego Godin - they also play together at Atletico Madrid - Uruguay have won all four games in Russia, conceding a solitary goal.
They are also the only side to have beaten Russia, overwhelming them 3-0 in the group stage in what appeared to be a reality check for the host nation before they went on to stun Spain in the last 16.
Uruguay extinguished Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal on a thrilling night in Sochi to reach the quarter-finals, with Edinson Cavani scoring two brilliant goals.
Next up the grizzly, experienced World Cup campaigners take on a young France - the exciting Kylian Mbappe, and Gimenez and Godin's Atletico team-mate Antoine Griezmann - on Friday, bidding for a place in the semi-finals.
It is as tough a World Cup fixture as France could have, and any hope that their stars will enjoy the same space they enjoyed in their 4-3 win against a disorganised Argentina have already been extinguished.
"France's strongest points are the attackers, Griezmann and Mbappe," Uruguay's veteran coach Oscar Tabarez said in his understated yet determined way after the Portugal victory.
"If you let France have space it will be very difficult."
The freedom experienced in Kazan will not be granted to the French by Uruguay's suffocating defence in Nizhny Novgorod.
"El Maestro" Tabarez has been in charge of Uruguay for 12 years and has not only forged a strong team which rarely fail to deliver on the big stage, but also a side with an immense work ethic and huge experience.
At this World Cup, goalkeeper Fernando Muslera and star striker Luis Suarez both played their 100th game for their country.
Their main doubt for France is Cavani, who has a calf muscle injury that forced him off against Portugal. He did not train on Tuesday.
Cavani has played 105 times for his country. If he has not recovered in time, he could replaced by Cristhian Stuani, who has played 42 times for Uruguay, just 16 fewer times than Griezmann has appeared for France.
And they are marshalled by the incomparable Godin, currently 121 caps and counting.
Uruguay has a "unique" team spirit because their victories mean so much to the players and the country, one of those inside the South American team camp said this week.
But in this topsy-turvy World Cup, one thing for Uruguay has notably changed.
Surprisingly, the team which has received the fewest yellow cards in Russia - just one - is Uruguay, the team who traditionally resort to the dark arts to win.
At the last World Cup, Luis Suarez was involved in the notorious biting scandal and as far as back as 1986 Uruguay were labelled "liars and cheaters" by Alex Ferguson after a bad-tempered match against Scotland. This time, only Rodrigo Bentancur has been booked in Russia.
It is a remarkable transformation.
They have five fewer yellow cards than France going into Friday and it is the Europeans who have to reshuffle because of a suspension to Blaise Matuidi.
Uruguay also have a reputation as World Cup party-poopers - remember Ghana in 2010 - and history is on their side.
The two nations have met three times in the World Cup and Uruguay have not lost once. And in all competitions, France have not scored against them in six and a half hours of play.