Luis Suarez is set to win his 100th Uruguay cap Wednesday as he bids to make amends for past World Cup misdemeanors against a Saudi Arabia side still reeling from a thrashing in its opening fixture.
Suarez was sent off for the handball that denied Ghana a goal in the quarterfinals of the 2010 tournament in South Africa, leaving the suspended striker to watch from the sidelines as La Celeste lost 3-2 to Netherlands and missed out on a place in the final.
In Brazil four years ago he was banned from all football activity for four months and suspended for nine international matches after biting Italy's Giorgio Chiellini in the group stage, leaving his teammates to bow out at the hands of Colombia in the round of 16.
That notorious incident did not prevent him moving from Liverpool to Barcelona, where the 31-year-old has flourished, and he has arrived at the tournament in Russia at the peak of his powers, in what is likely to be the last chance for the former Ajax attacker and several of his experienced teammates, including Paris Saint-Germain's Edinson Cavani and Diego Godin of Atletico Madrid, to make an impact on the biggest stage in soccer.
Their opponent Wednesday in Rostov will be Saudi Arabia, which proved unexpectedly hapless in suffering a 5-0 thrashing against Russia in the event's curtain-raiser in Moscow last week.
Uruguay was less impressive in its first fixture, and needed Jose Gimenez's 89th-minute goal to snatch all three points against Egypt, which did not risk the recovering Mohamed Salah.
Guillermo Varela was among Uruguay's most consistent performers in the narrow victory in Ekaterinburg, and the Penarol right back is not worried about Suarez's below-par display.
"I see Luis [doing] well, with desire and enthusiasm," he said. "Although he could not convert [his chances against Egypt], we also have other colleagues who can do it.
"In this case it was Josema [Jose Gimenez], but Luis is a great player."
Former Saudi star Nawaf Al-Temyat was among those dismayed at the meek showing produced by the team against Russia in Moscow, a performance which even led to calls for coach Juan Antonio Pizzi to consider his future after just one competitive match in charge.
"We allowed them to impose their way of playing that differs from ours," Al-Temyat said in an interview published by the Saudi Football Federation. "We should not forget … the bitterness of what happened, but this should be addressed in a proper way that reflects the players, the administrative staff and the national team."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Uruguay - Luis Suarez
Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez is reportedly set to start with Carlos Sanchez and Cristian Rodriguez ahead of Nahitan Nandez and Giorgian De Arrascaeta on the flanks in a bid to help Suarez produce his best against Saudi Arabia, which could prove the perfect opponents for the deadly marksman to find his rhythm.
Saudi Arabia - Osama Hawsawi
The captain of Saudi Arabia, 34-year-old Al-Hilal center back Hawsawi, was woefully ill-equipped to deal with Russia's pace and movement in attack last week, and the challenge facing the defender and his teammates appears far more daunting at Rostov Arena. Unless major individual and collective improvement takes place, another rout could be in the cards.
KEY OPTA STATS:
- This is the third encounter between Uruguay and Saudi Arabia and the first at a World Cup. The Saudis are unbeaten in the two previous fixtures, both home friendlies (W1 D1).
- This is Saudi Arabia's 15th game at a World Cup but its first against a South American side.
- Uruguay has won all three of its previous World Cup games against Asian opponents, scoring five and conceding just once (includes a 1970 victory against Israel, then part of the AFC).
- Saudi Arabia has finished last in the group in its last three World Cup appearances, the best performance dating back to its opening tournament in 1994 (knocked out by Sweden in the round of 16).
- Saudi Arabia has won none of its last 11 games at the World Cup, losing nine of them (D2). Its last win in the competition dates back to the group stages of the 1994 edition (1-0 vs. Belgium).
- Saudi Arabia has failed to score in eight of its last 10 World Cup games. It did not have a single shot on target in the opener against Russia.
- Uruguay has lost just one of its last nine World Cup group games (W5 D3), winning five of the last six.