Moscow (AFP) – Uruguay and host nation Russia progressed to the World Cup knockout rounds on Wednesday as Cristiano Ronaldo took an early lead in the race for the Golden Boot.
A single goal from Luis Suarez was enough to give Uruguay victory against Saudi Arabia, leaving them on six points along with Russia and condemning Egypt and the Saudis to an early exit.
Russia and Uruguay will face one of the top two from Group B in the last 16 — either Portugal, Spain or Iran.
Suarez took advantage of a goalkeeping error by Mohammed Al-Owais in Rostov-on-Don to put his side ahead midway through the first half and the Saudis could not respond.
Barcelona forward Suarez has exited the last two World Cups in disgrace after being sent off for a goal-line handball against Ghana in 2010, and he infamously sank his teeth into Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini in 2014.
In the earlier game, in Group B, Ronaldo netted his fourth goal of the tournament in a 1-0 win against Morocco for European champions Portugal, ending the north Africans’ chances of progress.
The five-time world player of the year scored with an early header to go with his hat-trick for the European champions against Spain in their tournament opener.
The Real Madrid player, who won his fifth Champions League crown last month, now has 85 international goals — a record for a European player.
“I’m happy I scored the goal but the most important thing is that we won the game. We have to think match by match in order to progress,” he said.
Disappointed Morocco coach Herve Renard said his side could take pride from their performances in Russia despite being out of the running to qualify for the last 16.
“We qualified for a World Cup after 20 years and we’ve showed that we can play football,” he said. “We do play football.”
– Spain stress –
In the later match in Group B, Spain head to Kazan to face Iran, still counting the cost of a chaotic run-up to the tournament during which Julen Lopetegui was sensationally sacked just two days before they opened their campaign.
Former international defender Fernando Hierro is now at the helm and has the job of steadying the ship and steering Andres Iniesta and his teammates into the last 16.
“It’s a crucial match that will determine our World Cup destiny,” said midfielder Isco of the Iran showdown.
“We want to score from the opening minute, even though that won’t be easy.”
Iran kicked off their campaign with a 1-0 win against Morocco, thanks to a late own goal by Aziz Bouhaddouz, piling the pressure on Spain at Kazan Arena.
Iran’s opening victory sparked celebrations in the streets of Tehran and throughout the Islamic republic.
Coach Carlos Queiroz concedes Iran now face one of the biggest challenges in their World Cup history, but maintains they can “make the impossible possible”.
“We are well aware of Spain’s reputation, so we’ll have to play our best game ever. In the end the football gods will decide,” said the former Real Madrid coach.
Iran have never beaten a European side at a World Cup — their only previous victory was a 2-1 win over the United States in France in 1998.
Hosts Russia beat Egypt 3-1 in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday, a result which paved the way for them to move into the next round despite pre-tournament expectations that they would struggle to get out of their group.
After a goalless first half, Egypt captain Ahmed Fathi scored an own goal before Denis Cheryshev struck and Artem Dzyuba added a third. Mohamed Salah scored a consolation penalty late on but it was not enough for the Pharaohs.
Coach Stansislav Cherchesov was asked if it was the happiest day of his life. “I hope,” he said, “there are more to come.”