Uruguay need Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani to be on target vs. Saudi Arabia
ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia -- Both Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani cut frustrated figures for much of Uruguay's 1-0 victory over Egypt last Friday.
Suarez had four shots on the day, including one from a mere five yards that he managed to drag wide. His striker partner Cavani didn't fare any better, hitting the post late on, though he did lay on a pair of chances for Suarez, both of which were saved by Egyptian goalkeeper Mohamed El-Shenawy.
No one was happier than Uruguay's striker force when Jose Gimenez headed home his 89th minute winner, but there is general acknowledgement that La Celeste's tournament fate rests on both forwards finding the net. Fortunately for Suarez and Cavani, an antidote for their wastefulness awaits: a match against Saudi Arabia.
The Green Falcons were hammered 5-0 by hosts Russia in the tournament's opening game. As the scoreline indicates, Saudi Arabia's back line looked hugely suspect, be it in the air or on the ground.
One would naturally expect that a frontline possessing the quality of Cavani and Suarez would feast on what looks to be a footballing smorgasbord. After all, these are forwards playing for two of the elite clubs in the world, Cavani with Paris Saint-Germain and Suarez with Barcelona. Suarez is also Uruguay's all-time leading goal scorer with 51; Cavani is second with 42. They've both found the net at previous World Cups, with Suarez netting five times and Cavani twice.
So don't think Uruguay manager Oscar Tabarez is fretting about the form of his strikeforce, Suarez in particular.
"I don't know what happened but I will not speculate," Tabarez said his postmatch news conference. "I have seen many great players like [Lionel] Messi and [Diego] Maradona not living up to their potential in matches. It is not a sin.
"Suarez, as you say, was not playing as well as he normally does, but he had three scoring opportunities. The goalkeeper saved a couple of them. That happens to strikers."
Tabarez is expected to adjust his midfield, with substitutes from the first game, Carlos Sanchez and Cristian Rodriguez, being put in the starting lineup. But Uruguay need to pad their goal difference. If Russia prevail over Egypt, the group finale will see La Celeste and the tournament hosts square off with top spot in the group on the line.
The winner of the group will likely get to avoid a round of 16 matchup against one of the tournament favourites, Spain. The alternative is likely to be Portugal, which wouldn't be much easier given the form of Cristiano Ronaldo, but still more favourable nonetheless.
The expectation of a runaway win and a deluge of goals can play tricks with the mind, however. The longer the game remains scoreless, the more likely a sense of frustration is to set in. And Suarez's history is replete with examples -- including three suspensions for biting opponents -- of what happens when the emotion of the moment gets the better of him.
Granted, Saudi Arabia are simply happy to be in Rostov -- literally. As the team's flight was about to land one of the plane's engines caught fire due to striking a bird. The plane landed safely, but not before giving the Saudis a fright.
Regardless of the travel drama, it's unlikely Saudi Arabia will simply lay down for Uruguay either. Back in 2002, they were obliterated in their opener by Germany to the tune of an 8-0 scoreline. The Green Falcons followed up that match with a 1-0 loss to Cameroon after a second half goal from Samuel Eto'o. Different generations for sure, but it speaks to the fact that this Saudi Arabia team will be keen to prove that they are much better than what they showed in the opener.
To that end, Saudi Arabia will need more than just an improved mentality against Uruguay. The backline against Russia was all over the place, disconnected one moment and then over-shifted the next. It hasn't helped that current manager Juan Antonio Pizzi is Saudi Arabia's third manager in the last year, but at minimum the defeat to Russia would hint towards a more defence-minded approach in terms of personnel and tactics.
Against a forward tandem like Suarez and Cavani, it probably won't matter.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.