Uruguay and France will square off on Friday in what is not only the first and one of the most highly anticipated quarter finals of this summer’s World Cup, but also one which could provide the strongest indication yet of exactly what it will take for any team to win the tournament in Russia.
From the outset of the group stages, this year’s edition of the World Cup has proved to be one capable of providing more shocks, upsets, high scoring matches and a plethora of major incidents than any tournament before it.
The elimination of Germany at the group stage, effectively at the hands of South Korea through a 2-0 defeat on the final matchday of Group F, ultimately set a tone of shock and unpredictability for the rest of the tournament.
As the tremor of the reigning world champions’ exit from the tournament finally set in, it was not long before the current European champions Portugal followed suit, as Uruguay produced a resolute performance to send Ronaldo and co. home.
If Portugal’s exit seemed to have provided all the necessary shock for the round, Russia had other ideas. The hosts were not prepared to be outshone at their own party and delivered perhaps the biggest surprise of the tournament to date, as they held firm to send the imperious Spain home on penalties.
Japan threatened to continue the trend as they stormed into a shock 2-0 lead against the much-fancied Belgium, only for the Red Devils to overcome the deficit in late and dramatic fashion to advance into the quarter finals.
Most recently in this vein, Sweden produced a gritty and industrious performance to overcome the odds against a Switzerland side who many would have expected to overcome their technically limited opponents. Instead, it was the Swedes who marched into the quarter finals.
Such a succession of unlikely victories for the proposedly lesser and unfancied nations over some of the world’s finest national sides has meant that the sense of shock is no longer as unexpected at this tournament as it is a theme which is clearly not a result of coincidence.
What all of these ‘underdog’ victories have in common is the combatting of technical superiority, elite quality and star personnel with industry, determination, physical and mental resolve and an uncompromising work ethic.
The likes of Russia and Sweden have proven that ability alone does not win football matches. Especially not at this World Cup, where hard work and application is every bit as important as skill and technique, if not more so.
The only real exceptions to this ongoing theme of the tournament have come from Brazil and France.
The Samba stars went into their last 16 match against Mexico fully aware of the industrious and fiery Mexican performances during the group phase, which had even seen them beat Germany on matchday one.
Brazil were not to be overcome by the Mexican’s fire. They were calm, composed and asserted their technical superiority with assuredness and efficiency.
France came up against a troubled giant in Argentina. Despite the intimidating presence of Lionel Messi in Jorge Sampaoli’s side, France were clearly the side with the higher levels of team spirit, work ethic and the all-round technical superiority.
Both Brazil and France are the only two superpowers to have so far combined the two opposing approaches, of tactical resoluteness and hard work, and of technical brilliance and star quality, and successfully merged the two as a winning formula.
As France prepare to take on Uruguay, it will be of interest to see just how strong the will of the French is against a South American side who have come to define the hard working and industrious approach to winning at all costs.
Whilst the Uruguayans do boast the superstar duo of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani in attack, it is undoubtedly the French who possess the greater all-round technical quality.
However, whilst France have generally displayed a strong will to dig in and work hard as a team when required to grind out results at this summer’s tournament, the industrious side of the game is much more Uruguay’s forte.
Whether the attacking quality of the French will be enough to overcome the resolute determination and unflappable work rate of the South Americans remains to be seen.
Whilst France managed to so impressively overcome a true giant of the game in Argentina, they also conceded three goals in the process of the match. It was only their ability to outscore an Argentine side - who were defensively poor - that saw Didier Deschamps’ side advance to the quarter finals.
Against Uruguay, goal scoring opportunities will be much more at a premium. Whilst Kylian Mbappe was able to bully the slack Argentinian defence and run them ragged, the prodigious French star will have no such luck against Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez in the Uruguay backline.
Uruguay have conceded just one goal in their four matches at the tournament so far. France, meanwhile, have shipped four in four.
Whilst the plethora of top quality and supreme technical ability runs from back to front of the French side, from Raphael Varane in defence, to Paul Pogba in midfield, to Antoine Griezmann and Mbappe in attack, it remains to be seen whether their technical superiority will be enough to overcome the tactical astuteness and industrious efficiency on which Uruguay thrive.
France will need to match the intelligence and determination of their South American counterparts. If this World Cup has proven one thing so far, it is that nothing is to be taken for granted, as ability and technical superiority guarantee nothing in a tournament where surprise results are aplenty and shockwaves are to be expected.
The outcome of Friday’s match, which will be the ultimate matchup between European quality and South American fire, should provide the clearest indication yet as to what any aspiring champion will have to do to reign supreme in Russia this summer.