Individual brilliance—both its presence and its absence—was the obvious difference as Uruguay exited the World Cup on Saturday.
Deprived of Luis Suarez, the one truly world-class player in Oscar Tabarez’s squad capable of creating something from nothing (sorry, Edinson Cavani, you still have work to do), Uruguay’s best hope of progressing against a rampant Colombia side was to revert to the first resort of the underpowered side: keep it tight at the back and hope to simply notch something from a set piece or on the counter-attack.
For the first 25 minutes or so, Tabarez’s side seemed to be performing well in that regard. Their defensive line was staying firm, limiting the opportunities presented to Jackson Martinez and the rest of Colombia’s lauded front line. Shots, mostly from range, were not really testing Fernando Muslera in the Uruguay goal.
But then they gave James Rodriguez a yard of space on the edge of the box, and the 22-year-old punished them as only great players can. Chesting down a headed pass and turning on a sixpence, the Monaco forward proceeded to volley a wicked shot beyond the sprawled Muslera, the ball bounding in off the crossbar as the scorer wheeled away in celebration of his candidate for goal of the tournament.
Suddenly, a goal behind and their game plan in tatters, Uruguay had to amend their approach, gradually pushing more men forward in a bid to create more chances to restore parity.
Instead, Rodriguez put them to the sword just after half-time, as he rounded off a smart team move to effectively send Los Cafeteros into the quarter-finals.
Uruguay, with no game-changer in the final third, could summon no response.
“It was an even game and we compelled Colombia to shoot from outside the box,” Tabarez told reporters, per the Irish Independent, when asked about Rodriguez’s opener. “And then he scored one of the greatest goals in this World Cup.”
Rodriguez played the role a team’s greatest talent is meant to play. Uruguay, denied the use of Suarez (their fans would say robbed), had no one else capable of stepping into those shoes.
Tabarez said: “He [Rodriguez] has shown himself to be a great talent. Maradona, Messi, Suarez, Rodriguez, they do things because they have certain gifts that make them special.
“I believe from what I've seen, he's the best player in this World Cup. I don't think I'm exaggerating.”
Suarez, of course, proved himself to be one of the best players in the world for his performances last season at Liverpool, even if knee surgery robbed him of the chance to fully express himself on the biggest stage of all in Brazil.
Despite that, however, he was still able to score twice to see off England in the group stages, having been unable to rehabilitate his knee in time to play in the opening loss to Costa Rica.
Then, in the crucial final game against Italy, he inexplicably bit Giorgio Chiellini just moments before Diego Godin powered home his country’s winning header.
Uruguay were going through to the knockout round, but Suarez would not be joining them.
Without Suarez—whose bizarre claims that he “accidentally fell” into Chiellini, per Tariq Panja of Bloomberg, were rightfully dismissed by FIFA—Uruguay’s best hope for progression was destroyed.
Diego Forlan—now 35 and well removed from his peak—could not offer his side the same movement and direct threat, putting additional pressure on Edinson Cavani, who had been so effective as a sort of attacking man-marker against the Steven Gerrard-directed England and Andrea Pirlo-orchestrated Italy.
Colombia, whose attacking impetus throughout the tournament has come from further upfield, could not be stopped in that same way. Without their best player and their most effective tactical element, it was Uruguay's defensive organisation that would have to give them the platform to sneak through to the next round.
Rodriguez ensured that would not be enough.
“We knew who we were going up against,” Colombia’s coach, Jose Pekerman, told reporters. “Uruguay are a very difficult team and they have a great coach. All of our work has yielded its results.”
That is not to say that Suarez’s presence at the Maracana—the site of Uruguay’s famous 1950 World Cup triumph—would have changed the story.
It would be unfair to take anything away from Colombia, who justified their post-group-stage billing as one of the most dangerous sides in the competition with a comprehensive performance.
But Uruguay did create their chances, albeit mostly late in the game. Cristian Rodriguez (no relation) forced a good stop from David Ospina, before Maxi Pereira nearly beat the goalkeeper with a prodded volley from an acute angle.
In the closing stages, Uruguay peppered Ospina and his defence with aerial balls, but they had neither the guile nor the technique to turn that into a goal, a lifeline back into the game.
Perhaps Suarez’s presence would have made a difference in that regard. Then again, perhaps we need some perspective: For a country of three million people, the World Cup is always about overcoming the odds.
Bar their fourth-place finish in South Africa in 2010—achieved with essentially the same group of players used this time around, except the majority four years younger and nearer their prime—the Celeste have not gone beyond the last 16 of a World Cup since 1970.
As good as Suarez evidently is, he would have done well to change that against a Colombia side that is obviously blessed with a generation of players of rare talent.
Going out to them is no embarrassment, even if the Suarez situation inevitably leads to questions about what might have been.
"It is obvious that Luis is our main reference, the main player we have and that was felt. But that is not the reason we lost," Uruguay captain Diego Godin said.
"This group is leaving with its head held high. When you give everything, your soul, your heart and you give yourself for the shirt … people are thankful and Uruguayans are always going to be thankful."
Perhaps predictably, Tabarez—who launched a 13-minute defence of Suarez in his press conference ahead of this game—also declined to blame the defeat on the forward’s conspicuous absence.
“I don't know what energy we could have lost,” he said. “We simply accepted that he was suspended, but we criticised the excessive harshness of the sanction.
“That is true, but that is the feeling of an entire nation who follow football.
“We spoke about it before the match, but we could only try and bring positive things from that situation. That generated a lot of strength and willingness to come out and try and get a good result.”
That was not enough, however. Uruguay, like their star, are going home.
Colombia, with their stars shining brighter by the game, march on.
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