Group F action kicked off today at Bursa Atatürk Stadium and Uruguay took on Croatia in the second match of the day. It was a hard-fought game with chances for both sides, but a goal in the 41st minute from Ante Rebić was enough to earn Croatia all three points.
This is Uruguay’s 12th appearance and Croatia’s third at the U-20 World Cup finals. Neither side have won the tournament, although Croatia was a part of Yugoslavia when the former Balkan nation won in 1987. Uruguay’s best finish was second in 1997.
Despite having populations of less than 5 million, both Uruguay and Croatia are strong footballing countries that put an emphasis on youth development, and a good match was anticipated. It began with energy coming from both sides, and the referee produced a yellow card after just 14 seconds on Croatia’s Marko Livaja. The teams battled for control of the middle and the game went end to end in the opening minutes.
The first quarter of an hour was a bit tentative with no great chances for either side. Uruguay’s Federico Acevedo went wide with the first shot of the game five minutes in. Croatia came back and won a corner in the 11th minute but could do nothing with the chance. The first great opportunity of the match came on a Uruguay free kick from distance in the 17th minute. Playmaker Giorgian De Arrascaeta launched the ball into the box and it was almost turned home by center back José Giménez’s header, but the ball hit the side netting.
In the 21st minute, Croatia won a penalty after a nice ball over the top from Livaja found Dario Čanađija. Uruguay captain Gastón Silva clipped Čanađija’s ankle and the referee pointed to the spot. Livaja stepped forward to take the penalty, but his shot rocketed off the post, then ricocheted off the back of keeper Guillermo De Amores and Uruguay were able to clear it. The South Americans came right back down the field to win a corner, and Silva almost atoned for the penalty give-away, but his header was tipped over the bar by the Croatian goalkeeper Oliver Zelenika.
Uruguay looked like they had found a second wind after the missed penalty and started to attack the Croatian goal with more energy. De Arrascaeta tried his luck from distance twice and also sent several good-looking free kicks into the box, but Uruguay were unable to convert.
The breakthrough of the game came in the 41st minute, when Rebić scored a brilliant goal. Livaja was again involved with some quick passes in the final third, and the ball came to a streaking Rebić at the edge of the box. The Croatian looked like he took a touch too many to round a defender, but still beat De Amores with a good finish across to the back post. It was perhaps a bit unfortunate for Uruguay, who had looked dangerous, but certainly deserved for Croatia. The Europeans went into halftime up a goal despite relatively even possession and shots numbers.
Uruguay came out determined in the second half and almost went level off a headed shot from Diego Rolán, as Zelenika was forced into a fingertip save to touch the ball over the bar. Croatia were ready for the test, however, and still managed to control a bit more of the possession. Livaja especially continued to be dangerous with the ball at his feet, but was almost sent off for a second yellow card after a bad challenge in the middle of the park. As the game approached the hour mark, it was clear that Croatia were content with their one goal, and they began to employ various time-wasting tactics.
Uruguay made a double substitution after 65 minutes, bringing on Nicolás López and Leonardo Pais. The South Americans showed more attacking intent afterwards as they pressed forward for an equalizer. López was dangerous upon entering the game, and Diego Laxalt and De Arrascaeta created chances but Uruguay could not put the ball into the net. Croatian fullback Ivan Aleksić made several important challenges to deny Uruguay in various attacking positions. The final 20 minutes were nervy, but Croatia held on for a tight 1-0 victory and three important points.
The two teams will be back in action on Wednesday, when Croatia take on Uzbekistan, who also earned three points today. Uruguay will meet fellow losers New Zealand and will certainly need a win to boost their chances of progressing.