SOCHI, Russia (AP) — While others try to downplay the significance, the match between Uruguay and Portugal in the World Cup knockout stage will be focused on how much influence Luis Suarez and Cristiano Ronaldo can have.
Similar evaluations are made a few times every year when Ronaldo's Real Madrid and Suarez's Barcelona meet in La Liga and other club competitions. But this the first time it will happen on the biggest stage in soccer and with a spot in the quarterfinals at stake.
Veteran Portugal defender Bruno Alves said this week that Saturday's match will be about more than Ronaldo and Suarez. Good luck convincing fans of that.
Uruguay won its group with shutout victories in its first three games. Portugal's path to second place in its group was more tenuous. Of course it was Ronaldo leading the way, scoring four of Portugal's five goals.
Portugal's path to the round of 16 feels somewhat familiar to two years ago when it won the European Championship. This time, Portugal escaped to the knockout round after a shaky 1-1 draw with Iran, which had chances at victory in the closing moments.
In 2016, Portugal played to a 3-3 draw with Hungary on the final day of the Euros group stage, including two second-half goals from Ronaldo, to reach the knockout round. That was the start of Portugal's memorable run. The team did just enough to get past Croatia and Poland before decisively beating Wales in the semifinals and knocking off France in the final to give Portugal its first major international title.
It's unlikely that the same scenario will play out again, given how difficult the road to the final could be. But would anybody be surprised if Ronaldo again takes Portugal on a deep tournament run?
"We are champions of Europe and we have demonstrated our quality," Portugal defender Cedric Soares said.
Uruguay is in the round of 16 for the third straight World Cup, but is seeking a better memory than four years ago when Suarez's biting of Italy's Giorgio Chiellini was the story going into the knockout round. Uruguay was then dominated by Colombia in a 2-0 loss that turned into a showcase for James Rodriguez. In 2010, Suarez was a spectator for the semifinal loss to the Netherlands, having been sent off in the quarterfinals against Ghana.
This could be the final run for the veteran group that has played key roles in the past three World Cups for Uruguay. Suarez is 31, as are Edinson Cavani and defender Martin Caceres. Captain Diego Godin is 32. Uruguay has plenty of youth on its roster for the future.
ON THE DEFENSIVE
Uruguay was the only team not to surrender a goal in the group stage. It's impressive, even if the accomplishment came against arguably the easiest group in the tournament featuring Russia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Uruguay's defense is led by Godin, but the key against Portugal could be whether Jose Maria Gimenez is able to play after missing the final group stage games with a thigh injury. There have been various reports about the severity of his injury, but Gimenez returned to training earlier this week. Both Gimenez and Godin play for Atletico Madrid and have plenty of experience playing against Ronaldo in La Liga.
The last time Uruguay allowed a goal was last October in a 4-2 victory over Bolivia in World Cup qualifying.
FOUR IN A ROW
Uruguay has a chance to win its first four games of the World Cup for the first time since 1930, when four wins were good enough to win the title.
Excluding a penalty shootout loss to Chile in the 2017 Confederations Cup semifinals, Portugal is unbeaten in its last 16 matches at major tournaments. The last match Portugal lost was 4-0 to Germany at the 2014 World Cup.
This is the third meeting between the countries. The previous two were in 1966 in Lisbon and 1972 in Rio de Janeiro.
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