(Reuters) - European champions Portugal came up against a superior version of themselves as they were knocked out of the World Cup by Uruguay on Saturday.
Although Uruguay forward Edinson Cavani and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo will grab the headlines — the former for his two brilliantly goals and the latter for what could well be his World Cup farewell — Uruguay owed their 2-1 win to a superb all-round performance.
Portugal coach Fernando Santos summed up the South Americans on the eve of the match when he was asked to name their strong point.
“Uruguay’s biggest strength is Uruguay,” he said.
Portugal’s triumphant Euro 2016 campaign was never spectacular but it made the most of what they had available — a world-class striker, a strong defence, a good goalkeeper, a winning mentality and good organisation.
On Saturday, they faced a team who did the same things more effectively as they went down to only their second defeat in 28 competitive matches under the grizzled Santos.
Uruguay defended tenaciously, battled in midfield and packed a killer punch in their strike duo of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
Oscar Tabarez, remarkably in his 19th World Cup match as Uruguay coach, has built his side from the back and Pepe’s 55th-minute goal for Portugal was the first they have conceded this year.
Central defenders Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez play their club football together at Atletico Madrid and that showed as they repelled almost everything Portugal could throw at them with superb anticipation and understanding.
Their dependable goalkeeper Fernando Muslera would make them the envy of their bigger rivals Argentina, beaten 4-3 by France earlier in the day after a chaotic campaign.
But it is the attack which makes Uruguay such a potent force and took the country of 3.3 million to the semi-finals of the 2010 World Cup, the second round in 2014 and helped make them South American champions in 2011.
Suarez with 53 goals and Cavani 44 — 12 of them from assists by his striking partner — are their two all-time leading scorers and again showed their understanding with an astonishing opening goal in the seventh minute.
Rodrigo Bentancur found Cavani on the right touchline and he swept a magnificent crossfield pass to Suarez.
Suarez then cut inside and sent a pinpoint diagonal cross to the far post where Cavani slipped in unnoticed by seven Portugal players to score with a bullet header.
Cavani’s second goal was another magnificent effort as he met Bentancur’s pass first-time and curled the ball into the net from the edge of the penalty area.
Santos said there simply nothing his team could have done about the first goal.
“That was an incredible move,” he said. “There was a cross to the left, a cross to the right, and then one came in from behind. We weren’t able to control that kind of movement.”
Reporting by Brian Homewood, editing by Ed Osmond