Portugal vs. Uruguay set to be a 'Battle by the Black Sea' as both teams play hard
SOCHI, Russia -- "The Battle by the Black Sea" has a certain ring to it, or maybe "Slugfest in Sochi," but however Uruguay vs. Portugal turns out at the Fisht Stadium on Saturday, it is unlikely to pass off peacefully.
No World Cup is truly a World Cup without a bruising, cynical encounter between two teams who will not give an inch, so welcome to the No. 1 contender for Russia 2018's most belligerent game.
Perhaps it is unfair on both teams to predict a kicking match, but let us just consider the personalities involved.
Pepe, Luis Suarez and Diego Godin all have a well-earned reputation for taking the game to the limit, and beyond, with even Cristiano Ronaldo showing against Iran, when he was lucky to escape with just a yellow card for a flailing arm, that he can mix it when the occasion calls.
Both nations also have form when it comes to casting a shadow on a World Cup with their behaviour on the pitch.
Back in 1986, Ernie Walker, the secretary of the Scottish Football Association, claimed Scotland had "found ourselves on the field with cheats and cowards -- we were associated with the scum of world football," after Alex Ferguson's team were eliminated from the World Cup following a 0-0 draw against Uruguay in Mexico. A game in which Jose Batista was sent off after a foul just 39 seconds into the brutal clash.
But Uruguay earned the point that took them through to the knockout stages, so it was a case of job done and to hell with the consequences.
It was a similar story in Brazil four years ago, when Uruguay eliminated Italy in Natal in a game which saw Suarez bite Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder. That was, of course, just four years after Suarez had denied Ghana a place in the 2010 World Cup semifinals with a deliberate handball on the line to prevent a certain goal.
Portugal, too, are prepared to fight hard and, at times, illegally, to get a result.
Back in 2006, they defeated Netherlands 1-0 in the so-called "Battle of Nuremberg" to progress to the World Cup quarterfinals. Russian referee Valentin Ivanov issued a record four red cards and 16 yellows, setting a record for cards shown at a World Cup, with Portugal's Deco and Costinha both sent off, along with Khalid Boulahrouz and Giovanni van Bronckhorst for the Dutch.
In the following quarterfinal win against England, who can forget Ronaldo's wink to his teammates after urging the referee to send off his then-Manchester United colleague Wayne Rooney for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho?
The official needed no encouragement with that one, but Ronaldo made sure just in case.
Traditionally, both nations have had to battle for acceptance and respect from bigger, more successful neighbours in Europe and South America, so it has been a necessity at times to blend steel with style.
That approach has remained the same in Russia, but of the 32 teams at the competition, only Saudi Arabia and Spain boast a cleaner disciplinary record than Uruguay, who have committed just 42 fouls in three games.
Portugal have amassed the same number of fouls, but they have collected six yellow cards compared to Uruguay's one.
It is legitimate to question how many fouls have gone unpunished, however, and how close both teams have pushed the boundaries. Certainly both sets of players know how to stop an opponent without giving away a foul or catching the eye of the officials.
Some would call it the dark arts of football, but both Uruguay and Portugal know how to get the job done and they have no issues playing hard if that is what it takes to win.
Saturday's game in Sochi carries an extra edge, though, with two ageing teams arguably facing their last chance of World Cup glory in this cycle of players. It is difficult to envisage Suarez, Godin, Pepe, Ricardo Quaresma and Edinson Cavani making it to Qatar in 2022 -- although Ronaldo's attempt to be a footballing Peter Pan ensures his presence cannot be ruled out at age 37.
But this is a collision between two tough teams, rival bands of brothers, and gnarled gun-slingers with one big battle left in them.
Neither side will want to leave anything behind on the pitch in Sochi, so it will be a fight until the end. It won't be pretty, but it will certainly be absorbing and probably just a little bit X-rated.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_