Uruguay against Portugal is probably the best round of 16 tie that’s gone under the radar.
There are no headline stories here, no almost-crashed-out narratives, no real tournament favourites or even attractive dark horses.
Both are in the tier just below the elite but would be too boring a ‘shock winners’ pick to be worth the bother. Portugal are European champions, after all, and have Cristiano Ronaldo; Uruguay are twice world champions – four times if you count the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, which they do.
The tie will round off what promises to be an incredible day of football, following France vs Argentina, and like that match it’s tough to choose a winner here.
How they got on in the groups
Both teams had unusual group stages.
Portugal drew with Spain courtesy of a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick while not wholly impressing; they then beat Morocco after scoring a fourth-minute penalty and coasting from there; and finally, they drew with Iran, after a Ricardo Quaresma wonder-goal and last-minute Iranian penalty.
Uruguay really struggled against Egypt, looking out of sorts and lethargic, but getting a late goal and coming away with three points. After that, they spent just half an hour of their remaining two games on level pegging, taking the lead against Saudi Arabia after 23 minutes and against Russia after ten.
It made them the only team other than Croatia to win all three group games, but they didn’t really put any team to the sword like a nine-point team might. Their win against the tournament hosts was helped by a stroke of genius free-kick, an own goal, and a first-half red card. Against Saudi Arabia, they only mustered three shots on target.
While Portugal, as European champions, might be favourites, it was the South American side who were more convincing in the groups.
The tie looks set to be a battle between two 4-4-2 systems. Portugal have lined up that way in each of their group games, Ronaldo partnering either Gonçalo Guedes or André Silva up top.
Uruguay have been, at heart, a 4-4-2 throughout, although against Russia they went with a diamond in midfield. Full-backs Martín Cáceres and Diego Laxalt provided most of the width going forward, while the team were able to keep more players in a central area.
Portugal have struggled tremendously in open play. They’ve been the least productive team in the entire tournament according to the Football Whispers Expected Goals model, which excludes direct free-kicks and penalties.
Their 0.41xG90 is below everyone – Tunisia (0.54), Panama (0.57), Saudi Arabia (0.69). It’s by virtue of good finishing and penalties that they are where they are – and neither of those can necessarily be counted on.
The narrative focus on the match will undoubtedly be on Cristiano Ronaldo and the Uruguayan duo of Suárez and Cavani, but it will be everyone else on the pitch who will set the tone for the match.
How well either side will be able to get the ball to, or otherwise fashion chances for, their big stars will determine which way the game swings.
Both are capable of producing performances that are painful to watch, but at the same time both have players who are full of the most cynical and theatrical gamesmanship. With so much to play for, and so tight a match, this could be more entertaining for what happens when the ball’s dead rather than when it’s in play.