Uruguay begin World Cup with a win as Egypt keep Mohamed Salah on bench
YEKATERINBURG, Russia -- Three thoughts from Uruguay's dramatic late 1-0 win over Egypt in Group A.
1. Gimenez snatches it for Uruguay
Uruguay are up and running, and in the most dramatic of circumstances. They had seemed out of luck against a dogged but limited Egypt team, missing a host of chances and striking the post late on. But a late winner from Jose Gimenez, who bulleted home a header from Carlos Sanchez's free kick with a minute of normal time to play, sparked wild celebrations among the South American contingent and leaves Egypt in trouble. A win against Russia on Tuesday now seems essential for Hector Cuper's side, for whom Mohamed Salah was deemed unfit to play and did not emerge from the bench.
Nobody expected much other than a cagey opening from these two teams on Friday and that is largely what transpired, with both sides willing to sit back early on. Uruguay created a half-chance in the 14th minute when Luis Suarez, well-placed to meet Guillermo Varela's cut-back, skewed a shot wide of the near post from close range. He has converted more difficult opportunities before but spurned a far better opportunity just 10 minutes later. When a corner nudged off Diego Godin into an unmarked Suarez's path, a goal seemed certain but he scraped his effort into the side netting from six yards.
There were no further openings of note before half-time of a low-key affair watched by a disappointingly sparse but vocal crowd. But in the first minute of the second half Suarez let Egypt off the hook again, running onto a cute ball from Edinson Cavani but allowing Mohamed El Shenawy to spread himself well and save.
Nobody bar Suarez received a sniff of goal as the match drifted on. Then, amazingly the Barcelona striker fluffed his lines again 17 minutes from time, finding himself one-on-one with El Shenawy on the left side of the area but taking too long to select his finish. Eventually, the goalkeeper smothered the loose ball at his feet.
El Shenawy would save his best work of the match for the 83rd minute, flinging himself across his goal to paw away a Cavani volley after Suarez had nodded the ball into his teammate's path. Cavani would come closer still with just two minutes to go, whipping a free kick onto the post and seeing Godin's goal-bound follow-up inadvertently blocked by his own teammate. That seemed to be it and as both sides seemed destined for a point, Gimenez popped up moments later to win the day and leave Egypt praying that Salah's shoulder is definitively match-ready by Tuesday night.
2. Heartbroken Egypt miss talisman Salah
How cruel this was for Egypt, who find themselves on the brink already and can't afford any slip-ups against the host nation. Their players slumped to the ground at full-time; they'd given everything but without Salah's presence in attack, they never really threatened Uruguay's goal and were wobbling dangerously before Gimenez scored.
This was never going to be a full-throttle Egypt side. Salah is the man who provides their X factor and without him the sense was that Cuper would have been more than happy to frustrate Uruguay, hold on for a point and bank on getting the job done against Russia and Saudi Arabia with his star man in better health.
Egypt actually began positively, relatively speaking, and when they did press Uruguay, they looked capable of getting among their defence. But the game settled into its expected pattern quickly enough.
Under Cuper, Egypt have been criticised for taking a defensive approach, a fact the veteran coach acknowledged in his prematch news conference. On Friday, it seemed like the right thing to do. They are supremely well-drilled and the Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Elneny was the linchpin of their approach, shielding the defence and snapping into challenges but occasionally leading a charge higher up. The loss of Tarek Hamed, Elneny's partner in the middle, to injury early in the second half didn't change things too much, either; they remained compact and spiky, posing an increasing threat on the break.
The arrival of winger Kahraba (which means "Electricity") added some much-needed spark and he came close to setting up a chance for Elneny, only for Martin Caceres to make a vital interception. But in truth Egypt created very little and it was not until the 72nd minute, when a speculative Amr Warda effort drew a diving save from Fernando Muslera, that they posed any real problems.
Kahraba's introduction was a clear sign that Salah had never really been in the running to play here. The hope must be that given four days' extra training and recovery, he is ready to save Egypt's World Cup in St. Petersburg.
3. Profligate Suarez sees his blushes spared
What a relief Gimenez's intervention was for Suarez and what an irony that for all their attacking wizardry, it took a towering jump from a centre-back to break Egypt's resistance.
Suarez looked off-key from the start in a Uruguay performance that, at best, flickered. When he shot wide from in front of goal midway through the first half -- prompting a double-take from virtually everyone in the stadium as the net rippled but the ball flew behind -- it was tempting to wonder if he was looking for new ways to become a World Cup anti-hero.
In 2010, Suarez's hands earned him notoriety; in 2014 it was his teeth; so far at Russia 2018, his wastefulness with his feet has cost him and he's running out of time to make the kind of thrilling impact on this stage that his talent merits.
On a good day, Suarez would have scored a hat trick here and if Uruguay are to achieve anything of note in Russia, they will expect more than this. The same goes for Cavani, who played one smart through-ball and combined smartly on other occasions but was able to directly threaten only once himself. The thought soon occurred that at times Uruguay's star strike pair can hinder as much as they help.
That might sound ridiculous but Uruguay have been praised for a more fluid approach over the past year yet abandoned it on Friday. As Egypt sat in, they became less composed and sought to hit their front men earlier, perhaps hoping they would summon some magic. None came, as it turned out, and it was an afternoon when anyone hoping to see Rodrigo Betancur or Giorgian De Arrascaeta, the latter a likable No. 10, take things by the scruff of the neck would be sorely disappointed. Suarez and Cavani may have set up chances for one another but this was supposed to be a Uruguay side with added menace from elsewhere and for long periods their teammates failed to step up.
When one did, though, the effect was huge. Gimenez might just have sparked this super-talented Uruguay side into life but Suarez in particular will need to find his shooting boots when better opponents come calling.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.