Uruguay, Russia reach knockout stage
ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia, June 20, (AFP): Uruguay booked their place in the World Cup knockout stage along with Russia on Wednesday, as Luis Suarez scored the winner on his 100th international appearance in a 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia in Rostov-on-Don.
The South Americans take on the hosts in their final Group A match on June 25 with top spot on the line, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been eliminated after both suffered back-to-back defeats.
Russia and Uruguay will face one of the top two from Group B in the last 16 — either Portugal, Spain or Iran.
The 31-year-old Suarez, whose previous two World Cups both ended in bans after his infamous 2010 handball against Ghana and bite on Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini four years later, took advantage of a goalkeeping error by Mohammed Al-Owais to put Uruguay ahead midway through the first half.
Oscar Tabarez’s side missed plenty of opportunities to add further goals, but a toothless Saudi outfit never seriously looked like snatching a point.
Uruguay, semifinalists eight years ago in South Africa, have now reached the knockout stage for the third straight time, while Saudi Arabia will try again in their search for a first World Cup win since 1994 in their final game against Mohamed Salah’s Egypt.
Suarez made a bright start, looking to make amends for his poor performance in the opening 1-0 win against Egypt, firing a left-footed volley from Cristian Rodriguez’s knockdown which was blocked by Ali Al-Bulayhi.
The Saudis managed to have plenty of early possession, although without looking overly threatening, only to gift Uruguay a 23rd-minute lead.
Al-Owais — winning only his second cap after replacing Abdullah Al-Muaiouf in goal — completely missed a floated Carlos Sanchez corner and Suarez tapped in his 52nd international goal unmarked at the back post.
That strike was Suarez’s sixth World Cup goal and made him the first Uruguayan to score in three separate finals.
Juan Antonio Pizzi’s Saudi Arabia continued to look far more assured on the ball than they did in the 5-0 drubbing by Russia on the opening day of the tournament, with Hatan Bahbri firing a wild volley over shortly after seeing a long-range effort tipped away by Fernando Muslera.
Uruguay began the second period with greater purpose, and Suarez came close to a second when Al-Owais palmed clear his low free-kick.
The three points and a last-16 spot should have been wrapped up just after the hour mark, but Sanchez headed over when unmarked at the back post from a wonderful Edinson Cavani cross.
Cristiano Ronaldo followed up his opening game heroics at the World Cup with the only goal in a 1-0 win for Portugal against Morocco as the European champions edged closer to the last 16.
The Real Madrid star struck in the fourth minute in Moscow to surpass Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas as Europe’s all-time leading scorer with 85 international goals.
Victory sent Portugal top of Group B on four points ahead of Spain’s game against Iran in Kazan, as a second straight defeat for Morocco condemned the African nation to an early exit in their first World Cup appearance since 1998.
Morocco coach Herve Renard opted for a back four, with Manuel Da Costa and Nabil Dirar coming into the side, to provide added protection against the “absolutely exceptional” Ronaldo after his hat-trick against Spain.
But his plans were torn apart within minutes at the Luzhniki Stadium as Ronaldo wriggled free of the imposing Da Costa to bury an unstoppable header past a helpless Monir El Kajoui.
It was Ronaldo’s fourth goal of the tournament, more than his combined tally at three previous finals, and left him trailing just Iran’s Ali Daei (109) on the list of top international goalscorers.
The Real Madrid forward threatened a second soon after, swivelling on the edge of the area and scuffing just wide after a powerful run from left-back Raphael Guerreiro.
Mehdi Benatia forced a smart low save from Rui Patricio at a corner for Morocco, before Hakim Ziyach skipped his way into the Portugal area, his goal-bound effort blocked by an outstretched leg.
Joao Moutinho then nipped in ahead of Mbark Boussoufa to get a vital clearing touch in the six-yard box as Morocco consistently targeted the right side of the Portuguese defence.
A crude lunge from Benatia on Ronaldo left the Portugal skipper writhing around in pain, while Morocco felt aggrieved when Nordin Amrabat was hauled down by Guerreiro as he muscled his way into the area.
Khalid Boutaib was flattened by Jose Fonte in an aerial challenge that again had the Moroccans up in arms, with Renard warned for gesturing for the video assistant referee.
Morocco goalkeeper El Kajoui kept his side in the game when he stuck out a strong left palm to repel a Goncalo Guedes effort following Ronaldo’s lofted pass over the top.
Ronaldo blazed over from 15 yards after a quick free-kick caught Morocco out, Guedes’s miscued attempt rolling invitingly to the five-time world player of the year.
Morocco continued to carve out opportunities as Patricio clung on well to a curling Belhanda shot, and the Portugal keeper pulled off an even better save minutes later.
Another dangerous delivery from Ziyach was flicked on by Belhanda, with new Wolves signing Patricio flinging himself to his right to magnificently claw the ball to safety.
A further opening fell to Benatia, the Juventus defender neatly shifting the ball onto his left boot only to lash over the bar as Morocco’s frustrations mounted.
The lively Ziyach nipped past Fonte in the closing minutes but found Pepe standing in his way, with Benatia hammering over one final chance to seal Morocco’s fate.
Portugal will meet Iran in their final group game on June 25, with Morocco set to bow out after their match against Spain in Kaliningrad.