Antoine Griezmann seals France’s World Cup quarter-final win over Uruguay
Stuart James at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Didier Deschamps had no desire to answer a question on the eve of this game about whether France could end up as champions, a man who knows what it takes to win a World Cup stubbornly refusing to look too far into the distance. Deschamps, however, will only be able to avoid that subject for so long after France eased past Uruguay, courtesy of Raphaël Varane’s splendid header and an awful blunder by Fernando Muslera, to reach the World Cup semi-finals for the first time since 2006.
Argentina and now Uruguay have been dispatched en route to the last four and, ominously for those teams left, it feels as though there is still so much more to come from France. What is clear is that the last thing they need is for anyone to give them a helping hand, but that is exactly what Uruguay did here.
It turned into a harrowing evening for Muslera, the Uruguay goalkeeper, who gifted France their second goal when he allowed Antoine Griezmann’s speculative shot to go through him. The shot dipped and swerved a little but Muslera, like everyone else in the stadium, knew that he should have made a routine save after getting two hands to the ball.
For Uruguay there was never going to be a way back. Óscar Tabárez, their coach, can take encouragement from another tournament when they have punched above their weight, although he will also wonder what might have been had Edinson Cavani not been ruled out with a calf injury. How Uruguay missed him.
France had known exactly what to expect. Uruguay had conceded one goal in their previous seven matches and were never going to give France the space that Argentina afforded them. Uruguay formed two narrow banks of four whenever France had possession and the question was how they could find a way through. For 39 minutes they struggled to come up with an answer but then a weakness was exposed.
Pepe had punished Uruguay from a set piece last Saturday and France did exactly the same. The frustration from Uruguay’s point of view is that the free-kick was given away so carelessly. Rodrigo Bentancur was caught in possession deep inside the Uruguay half and, desperate to try to prevent Corentin Tolisso from getting away, recklessly brought him down, leading to a free-kick in a dangerous position wide on the left.
Griezmann approached the ball, retreated and then stepped forward again before delivering an inswinging free-kick that seemed to catch Uruguay by surprise, perhaps because of the stutter in his run-up. Varane, timing his run perfectly, got across Cristhian Stuani to send a superb glancing header into the far corner.
It was a terrific header and, from the neutral’s point of view, exactly what this quarter-final needed. Up until that stage it had been a game of chess with France trying to make the more attacking moves. There was a surge of excitement inside the stadium whenever Kylian Mbappé was on the ball but the teenager was too fast for his teammates at times. One pass from Paul Pogba, beautifully slid on the inside of Diego Laxalt, encouraged Mbappé to dart in behind the left-back. Effortlessly going through the gear, Mbappé accepted the invitation and got to the byline to cut the ball back but the rest of the France attack were still catching their breath, trying and failing to keep up.
Mbappé could and should have put France ahead earlier on. Olivier Giroud nodded the ball back across goal but Mbappé, unmarked and eight yards out, seemed to mistime his jump and his header sailed over the bar. Otherwise France, for all their possession, created little up until the opening goal, which said as much about the lack of imagination to their attacking play as it did the resilience of Uruguay’s defending.
The challenge for Uruguay was to find a way to respond to Varane’s goal – something they nearly did within a couple of minutes. Martín Cáceres, the Uruguay right-back, met Lucas Torreira’s deep free-kick with a powerful header that looked destined for the bottom corner until Hugo Lloris, throwing himself low to his right, made a splendid save. Diego Godín was first to react to the loose ball but thumped a left-foot shot, from a couple of yards out, off target as Lloris, clambering to his feet, did his best to put the central defender off. Even allowing for the angle being slightly against him, Godín should have scored.
Tabárez withdrew the ineffective Stuani early in the second half, replacing him with Maximiliano Gómez, but the damage was about to be done again at the other end of the pitch. Griezmann, in space and 25 yards out after receiving a square pass from Tolisso, hit a left-foot shot that Muslera seemed to have covered. Only the Uruguay goalkeeper knows how it ended up in the back of the net. It was a horrible mistake.
The game then threatened to get ugly after a melee that was caused by Mbappé making far too much of some slight contact by Cristian Rodríguez. Mbappé is a wonderful talent but did himself no favours with his play-acting and ended up getting booked after Néstor Pitana, the Argentinian referee, had regained control. Not that France looked flustered thereafter.