Jose Gimenez’ bullet header breaks Egypt hearts late on
Mohamed Salah remains on bench as he continues recovery from injury
Jose Gimenez of Uruguay heads home the winning goal during the Group A game at the Ekaterinburg Arena. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Slowly, slowly, it had been coming. After 80 minutes in which almost nothing had happened, other than the non-appearance of Mohamed Salah, Uruguay in the final minutes had just begun to increase the pressure. There was a volley from Edinson Cavani pawed away by Mohamed El Shenawy then a free-kick smacked against the post by the same player and then, finally, with a minute to go, Jose Gimenez rose to meet a right-wing corner with a powerful header and Uruguay, for the first time since 1970, had won their opening game at a World Cup.
But much of the game had seemed to conform to the stereotype of modern international football. The better teams can defend and can hold their shape, and very few sides have the cohesion to attack with the pace or precision to break them down. That was exacerbated here by a pitch that seemed to have been insufficiently watered. As in the early stages of the opening game, before Saudi Arabia’s implosion, there was a sense that the ball was sticking, reducing further the pace of attacks.
The result is slightly scrappy, underwhelming football, short of fluidity or goalmouth action – and, correspondingly, a premium on the sort of dynamic attacking player who can transform games. And the brightest of those this season, was missing.
After all the excitement of Thursday, and the overblown response to one line from Hector Cuper in a press conference that was replete with equivocation, Salah did not start. He had seemed tentative performing some basic windmill exercises in training and his only involvement here was to elicit a great roar from the Egyptian fans as he trotted out to warm-up and then another cheer – and a chorus of Happy Birthday (he turned 26 on Friday) – when he was shown on big screens midway through the first half.
Not that Uruguay are without their great attacking individuals, but there is a feeling that Cavani and Luis Suarez, both now 31, owed Uruguay a big World Cup. Cavani, operating in wide roles, had little impact in either 2010 and 2014 and compounded the image of himself as a player uncomfortable in major tournaments with his red card against Chile in the quarter-final of the 2015 Copa America, albeit after significant digital provocation from Gonzalo Jara. Suarez had, at least, contributed five goals in 2010 and 2014, but his two most memorable acts at World Cups remain a handball and a bite.
It was difficult here to avoid the conclusion that neither really benefited from the service they received. Uruguay showed themselves in qualifying to be a more fluent, more progressive side than the battlers of old, the emergence of Rodrigo Bentancur, Matias Vecino and Giorgian De Arrascaeta in midfield testament to the long-term youth development initiated by Oscar Tabarez when he returned to the national job in 2006. But there was little sign of their ability here; rather Uruguay, perhaps stymied by the pitch, dealt in a series of slightly aimless long balls that seemed to play into the hands of Egypt’s well-organised and muscular defence.
When a corner did drop to Suarez on the edge of the six-yard box after 24 minutes, he mystifyingly dragged his shot wide. There were other chances, one kept out by the right boot of El Shenawy and a one on one in which the goalkeeper dived at his feet. But slowly the chances began to mount up and in the end, Egypt cracked, the first goal they had conceded at a World Cup since Mark Wright’s header in 1990.
It was not pretty from Uruguay, but it was enough. – Guardian service
EGYPT (4-2-3-1): El Shenawy; Fathi, Gabr, Hegazi, Abdelshafy; Elneny, Hamed (Morsy, 50 mins); Warda (Sobhi, 82 mins), Said, Trezeguet; Mohsen (Kahraba, 63 mins).
URUGUAY (4-4-2): Muslera; Varela, Gimenez, Godin, Caceres, Godin; Vecino (Torreira, 87 mins), Bentancur; Nandez (Sanchez, 58 mins), De Arrascaeta (Rodriguez, 58 mins); Suarez, Cavani.
Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (Netherlands).