Uruguay beat tournament hosts Russia 3-0 at the Samara Arena on Monday to top Group A by two points at the 2018 FIFA World Cup and proceed to the round of 16, where they'll face the runners-up of Group B.
Luis Suarez scorched in a whipped free-kick for the early breakthrough before Diego Laxalt's shot went in thanks to a Denis Cheryshev deflection, and Igor Smolnikov's red card before the break practically sealed the result. Edinson Cavani opened his World Cup account with a 90th-minute poke home to round off the win.
Uruguay find out later on Monday which Group B nation they'll face in their first knockout game, with Spain and Portugal level at the top on four points and Iran—who face the latter—one point below them.
Russia Exposed In 1st Real Test of World Cup
It felt as though the curtain had been pulled back on the Russian machine to some extent on Monday. It was a seemingly imperious juggernaut that was, it turns out, aided by flattering, fallen foes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
It's not actually all that dire for the hosts, of course, but there was no denying they looked decidedly more average against their first World Cup opponent ranked inside the top 40 in the world.
That gulf in tournament experience was exposed when Russian centre-back Sergei Ignasevich cleared a path for Suarez to send in the opening strike of the game 20 yards from goal, via Fox Soccer (U.S. only):
ITV provided a look at the set-piece breakthrough for UK audiences:
But that was just one of the more poignant moments in which Uruguay looked the wilier side. And Oscar Tabarez's men looked the more composed team long before Smolnikov's silly pair of yellows in an eight-minute window led to his first-half exit.
Statman Dave lumped some of the blame at the right-back's feet after his first start of the tournament, a poor decision from manager Stanislav Cherchesov considering Mario Fernandes was enjoying fine form in the competition:
Small changes such as that made all the difference as Russia fell two back and a man behind by half-time. It was a difficult predicament to be in when trying to crack a defence housing Diego Godin and Sebastian Coates, standing in for Jose Maria Gimenez.
Uruguay also benefitted from a toughened midfield corps that fights for their back-line that's yet to concede in Russia and again drew major praise on Monday:
Artem Dzyuba had his chances up front for Russia but not enough good sights to bamboozle a back line as accomplished as this, with Russia testing Fernando Muslera with just one shot on target, per WhoScored.com.
It's not all doom and gloom. Uruguay only beat Egypt 1-0 while Russia dominated the same foe 3-1, a sign perhaps that this, with a changed lineup and a red card, was an anomaly the real Russia could yet recover from.
Although that, too, could be wishful thinking.
Suarez Is Dark-Horse Striker to Watch in Knockout Stage
Joining the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Kane as one of the big-name strikers finding their form in Russia, Suarez netted his second goal in as many games to become his country's leading scorer at this World Cup.
There's, of course, no doubting the Barcelona marvel's talents, but only after getting the chance to showcase his superb dead-ball ability, per writer Joal Rabinowitz, did he really arrive at the tournament:
His 1-0 winner against Saudi Arabia was a scrappy swipe home from a goalkeeper error, but his initial incision against Russia was technically terrific, timely and a deliverance from the striker to live up to his reputation as Uruguay's man to watch.
OptaJoe noted he's not the only star striker among Uruguay's ranks, although Cavani's poke in from close range at the death could hardly earn him as much praise as his Camp Nou-based countryman:
Suarez is becoming enamoured with the World Cup, and his seventh goal in the finals brings him within one of Uruguay's record scorer in the competition, Oscar Miguez (eight), per Squawka.
He and Cavani have each scored at three World Cups, but the Paris Saint-Germain frontman has netted only one in each of the last three, while Suarez has now scored twice in each of the last three finals (2010, 2014 and 2018).
Presenter Piers Morgan said the sky's the limit for this outfit with their current striker duo:
Suarez's goal was his only attempt at goal while Cavani had four. Tabarez might be wise to advise the former to be a tad more selfish in front of goal, having come upon the confidence in front of goal that could lead Uruguay on a fairytale run in Russia.
Uruguay Will Trouble Spain or Portugal
With both strikers on the scoresheet, a third consecutive clean sheet from three World Cup outings and through having faced only six shots on target, Uruguay's round-of-16 foes have cause to be worried, whether it's Spain or Portugal.
Writer Nizaar Kinsella highlighted their strengths—and what strengths they are—as reason for some of Europe's best to be wary of the side that finished second in CONMEBOL qualification:
It speaks volumes of Tabarez's structure—not just the quality of defenders—that Coates can step in for Gimenez, while the full-backs also completely change, and the back line loses none of its efficacy.
Guillermo Varela was rested as Martin Caceres switched from left-back onto his favoured right foot on the other side of defence, and converted winger Diego Laxalt made a fine impression—even an improvement—at left-back:
One-man advantage aside, Uruguay looked more regimented than wild in their build-up and showed some of the finesse that the coach has longed to imbue in their ethos, as told by the Guardian's Jonathan Wilson.
Reporter Simon Harrison did, however, point out one potential pitfall if Uruguay face Spain in the round of 16, owing to the fact their greatest weakness, in midfield, just so happens to be a great strength for La Furia Roja:
All that said, one could ask questions of Uruguay's lasting power later on in the second half, although a team may be to some extent forgiven a lack of stamina in their last group game when up two goals against 10 men.
They now have four days off before they face the Group B runners-up on Saturday, which is a shorter respite than was had between their second and third group games.
Uruguay will face the runners-up of Group B on Saturday, while second-place finishers Russia won't be in action against the Group A winners until Sunday.
Spain face eliminated Morocco later on Monday, while Portugal play Iran, who are just one point behind the Iberian giants heading into their final fixture of the group phase.