Uruguay head coach Diego Alonso believes his Real Madrid star Federico Valverde is best suited as a defensive midfielder, but that the team will need to perform better as a whole to allow him to "shine more".

Alonso's comments came after Monday's disappointing 2-0 loss to Portugal, leaving Uruguay alongside Mexico and Tunisia as the only teams without a goal through two matches.

Following their failure to score in their 0-0 opener against South Korea, Uruguay were well-handled by the Portuguese, controlling only 40 per cent of the possession, although they only narrowly trailed in expected goals 1.33 to 1.27.

Not short on talent, Uruguay fielded a starting XI that included Liverpool's Darwin Nunez and 135-cap veteran Edinson Cavani up front, while Tottenham's Rodrigo Betancur partnered Valverde in midfield.

Having played both in central midfield and on the wing for Madrid, Valverde was deployed in the engine room against Portugal, and despite their desperation for goals, Alonso made it clear that is where he feels the 24-year-old is most valuable.

"I think Federico has played full matches with us in the qualifying round," he said. "He’s played in the same position, even playing higher up. 

"I think he played as a defensive midfielder with a second pivot together with Bentancur. It's the same position that you saw today. He was even playing higher up, or as a wide midfielder. 

"I think his main skill is playing through the central lanes. With us, he's showed a great performance in that position.

"When you talk about shooting, I think he shot once [against Korea], it just missed the top corner. He was unlucky he couldn't score. 

"For us, he's an important player with many skills. When the team plays better, I'm sure he will shine more."

Despite their lack of potency going forward, Uruguay still have a chance to advance to the knockout stage if they can defeat Ghana in their final Group H fixture – a rematch from 2010's quarter-final where Uruguay advanced on penalties.

"We are looking for victory against Ghana, there is no doubt about it," Alonso said. "If we have to make slight modifications, that is what we'll do. 

"We will provide a team all the weapons we have at hand, so I have full trust in my players. I'm sure the next game will be hard, but we will go all out so that we have a victory and we qualify.

"We are talking about qualifying or not qualifying. It was very important back in [2010], but this is a different situation. It will be a crucial game, but has nothing to do with what happened 12 years ago.

"We need to feel free and move freely as we played during the second half against Korea. We need to gamble more and push forward, playing in between the lines and going for one-on-ones on the sides. 

"Sometimes, opponents also play, they stop you, they know which are your main skills and they try to counter your play. But we need to continue trusting our team, our skills, the players we have, and to also give them trust to develop their game."

France, Brazil and Portugal are the only sides to have already secured World Cup knockout football, with numerous teams facing a nervy final matchday as they bid to reach the round of 16 in Qatar.

Pre-tournament favourites Brazil breezed through Group G with wins over Serbia and Switzerland, while France became the first reigning world champions to escape the group stage since the Selecao in 2006.

Portugal made sure of their round-of-16 spot after Monday's Group H victory over Uruguay, yet the likes of England, Spain, Germany and Argentina all need results on matchday three to progress.

The Netherlands are another big name that have yet to confirm their place in the latter stages of FIFA's top tournament, while Belgium face a tense Group F clash with Croatia to avoid an early exit.

Here, Stats Perform takes a look at the permutations riding on the final selection of group-stage action in the Middle East.

Group A

The Netherlands are largely in control of Group A, needing to just avoid defeat against the already eliminated hosts, Qatar.

Louis van Gaal's side will also reach the round of 16 if Ecuador beat Senegal, who have to win otherwise Aliou Cisse's side will rely on a somewhat unlikely win for Qatar over the Netherlands to remain in contention.

Ecuador, who have impressed in their first two games, must win or draw against Senegal to progress. However, Gustavo Alfaro's men could go through in defeat if Qatar beat the Netherlands.

Group B

A win or a draw is enough for England against fierce rivals Wales. Yet, the Three Lions would still progress as long as they avoid a four-goal defeat against Wales, whose goal difference is six fewer.

Iran are guaranteed to qualify with victory over the United States, who know anything other than a win against Carlos Queiroz's side will see them eliminated from the competition.

Quieroz's men could still escape Group B with a draw, though goal difference would come into play if Wales pick up their first win at the tournament against Gareth Southgate's England.

Group C

All four teams can still make it out of an enticing Group C, with Argentina – who were among the pre-tournament favourites – needing to beat Poland to guarantee a round-of-16 place.

La Albiceleste could progress with a draw, however, and would be through in that instance if Mexico and Saudi Arabia also share the spoils.

Yet, if Lionel Scaloni's men are held and Herve Renard's men beat El Tri, Argentina will be eliminated. If Mexico win and Argentina draw, it goes to goal difference.

Poland would go through by avoiding defeat, but would be knocked out by a loss coupled with a Saudi Arabia victory over Mexico, who must win to have any chance of remaining in the tournament.

If Poland lose and Saudi Arabia draw, the two teams will have to be separated by goal difference, which will also be used if Czeslaw Michniewicz's side are defeated and Mexico win.

Group D

France are already in the round-of-16 draw and will top Group D as long as they do not lose to Tunisia and Australia do not defeat Denmark, otherwise the Socceroos would move level on six points with Les Bleus.

While victory would take Australia through, Graham Arnold's side would still reach the knockout stage with a draw unless Tunisia beat France, which would see Jalel Kadri's men progress on goal difference.

Denmark would grab qualification with a win over Australia unless Tunisia triumph over France, which would leave goal difference or goals scored to separate the Carthage Eagles and Kasper Hjulmand's men.

Group E

Spain are the favourites to progress from Group E, requiring a win or draw against Japan. Defeat would see Luis Enrique's side still go through on goal difference, unless Germany lose to Costa Rica.

Germany must pick up three points to stay in contention and would qualify as long as Spain defeat Japan, though a draw in the latter game or a win for Hajime Moriyasu's men would see goal difference needed.

A win for Japan over Spain would take Moriyasu's side through, while a draw – coupled with a stalemate for Germany – would also see the Samurai Blue make the knockout stage.

Costa Rica would earn a last-16 spot with victory and a point would also take them through if Spain overcome Japan. A draw in both games or a defeat for Fernando Suarez's side sees them eliminated.

Group F

Croatia will pass through Group F if they avoid defeat against Belgium, who require victory against the 2018 runners-up to guarantee a place in the round of 16.

Such a win for Belgium would leave Croatia needing already eliminated Canada to overcome Morocco, with goal difference coming into play to separate Zlatko Dalic's side from the Atlas Lions.

A draw is likely not enough for Belgium. They would need Morocco to lose to Canada and then rely on goal difference, though Walid Regragui's men (+2) hold the advantage over Roberto Martinez's side (-1) in the decisive metric.

Morocco would progress with victory over Canada, while a defeat would see Regragui's side reliant on Belgium beating Croatia for goal difference to be decisive between Dalic's men and the Atlas Lions for second.

Group G

Brazil have secured knockout football and will finish as Group G winners with anything other than defeat against Cameroon, who need victory against Tite's side and results to go their way to make the last 16.

Rigobert Song's men would be eliminated if they do not win, though victory is not guaranteed to secure progression as Switzerland could play out a high-scoring draw with Serbia to go through on goals scored, which is used if sides cannot be separated on goal difference – Cameroon are currently on -1 and Switzerland level in the latter metric.

The somewhat expected scenario of Cameroon losing to Brazil would see Serbia and Switzerland become a winner-takes-all clash. 

Dragan Stojkovic's side need victory to progress in that instance, while a draw would be enough for Switzerland. Goal difference would be required if Serbia (-2) and Cameroon (-1) both win their final encounters.

Group H

Portugal are already through and would top Group H by avoiding defeat against South Korea, who could still make a late charge for the round-of-16 stage should the result between Uruguay and Ghana go their way.

The permutations are straightforward for Uruguay and South Korea, who must win to avoid elimination, though qualification is not assured even with victory.

Both teams would be level on four points with victories, again leading to goal difference to separate. Yet, if Ghana beat Uruguay then South Korea's result against Portugal will prove irrelevant for Paulo Bento's side.

A draw for Ghana and a win for South Korea would also see goal difference required to split the two sides, with Bento's men trailing the Black Stars by one in that metric, which could mean goals scored comes into it.

Bruno Fernandes claimed "I don't really think it matters" after being credited the opening goal in a 2-0 win over Uruguay to secure Portugal's World Cup last-16 place.

The Manchester United midfielder scored twice as Fernando Santos' side guaranteed their passage into the knockout stage with a match to spare after downing Uruguay at Lusail Stadium.

Portugal's opener was initially credited to Cristiano Ronaldo, who appeared to faintly glance home Fernandes' 54th-minute cross, but FIFA eventually intervened and awarded it to the latter.

Fernandes sealed the points from the penalty spot in the closing stages and is now focused on securing top spot in Group H by avoiding defeat against South Korea on Friday.

"I don't really think it matters who scored the goal at this point," he said when asked about Portugal's first strike. "The feeling I had at the time was that Cristiano touched the ball. I was passing the ball to him.

"But what's important is that we were able to go on to the next round after a very important win against a tough opponent.

"The importance of being first [in Group H] includes winning the next game, which would allow us to come out of the group undefeated with three wins, and that's what we want.

"We know we will find a very well-organised [South Korea] team ahead of us. Our objective is to think match after match – to win all the ones in the group phase, we still have one ahead of us.

"We have to do our very best because we want to win all the matches."

Santos hopes Portugal can finish the job to top Group H, having won their opening two World Cup games for only the third time – also achieving the feat in 1966 and 2006 in runs to the semi-final stage.

The Portugal head coach saluted his players, while he also revealed that Nuno Mendes will be assessed in "24 hours" after limping off during the first half.

"All our team have a great performance," Santos said. "The game was difficult, our opponent was difficult.

"In the second half, we managed to play as we are used to; despite the fact that the Uruguayan players were playing very well.

"Our players responded with purpose, and we managed to win with fair play. We have a feeling of satisfaction as we can move to the next stage.

"[Two wins from two is] exactly what I wanted for my team. As I said back in Portugal, our team is very united, we have a very good team building, and now we are given the answers to what was asked of us.

"There is still a match to be played; we need to be careful with our considerations. We do want to be first [in Group H], but we are not first yet. As a result, we need to continue improving on our tactics."

Bruno Fernandes scored both goals as Portugal secured a World Cup last-16 place with a 2-0 win over Uruguay at Lusail Stadium.

The Manchester United midfielder broke the deadlock in a scrappy Group H clash when his 54th-minute cross, which was aimed at Cristiano Ronaldo, nestled in the far corner.

He then wrapped up the points with a stoppage-time penalty and almost had a hat-trick as Fernando Santos' side joined France and Brazil in sealing their passage to the knockout stages with a game to spare.

The win saw Portugal avenge their 2-1 defeat by Uruguay in the last 16 of the 2018 competition in Russia.

Chances did not fall freely during the opening half-hour, with neither side registering a shot on target. William Carvalho's sweetly struck volley was just too high, while Jose Gimenez sent a looping header narrowly over the crossbar.

The game's first attempt on target in the 32nd minute almost provided one of the goals of the tournament when Rodrigo Bentancur embarked on a jinking run through the Portugal defence.

But the Uruguay midfielder’s finish let him down, as he shot straight at Diogo Costa when clear on goal.

La Celeste were aiming to become the first nation to record six straight clean sheets in the World Cup group stages, but they were given a warning when Joao Felix hit the side netting in the 51st minute.

Fernandes then opened the scoring three minutes later when his attempted centre, which Ronaldo initially appeared to faintly connect with, evaded Sergio Rochet.

Uruguay looked to respond as Maximiliano Gomez rattled the post and Luis Suarez hit the side netting, but Portugal sealed victory when Fernandes calmly slotted home from 12 yards after VAR penalised Gimenez for handball.

Fernandes twice went close to completing his hat-trick in the dying moments, Rochet saving his volley before he rattled the woodwork from 20 yards.

Portugal and Uruguay's Group H match at the World Cup was interrupted by a pitch invader carrying a rainbow flag at the Lusail Stadium.

Just over five minutes into the second half, the individual in question forced a brief stoppage in the game after taking to the field.

The invader, who was also wearing a shirt with the Superman logo, also sported the messages "Save Ukraine" and "Respect for Iranian Women".

He was subsequently removed by security, while Iranian referee Alireza Faghani removed the flag in question.

The pitch invader's actions are the latest protest at Qatar 2022, where LGBTQ+ rights are heavily restricted in the host nation.

A planned show of solidarity with the OneLove armband from European teams was effectively forced down by FIFA, with Germany subsequently protesting ahead of their match with Japan with a covered mouth gesture.

The protest also makes reference to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and continued demonstrations in Iran over the subject of women's rights.

Portugal and Uruguay play their final Group H games against South Korea and Ghana on December 2.

Ghana head coach Otto Addo insists the Black Stars will not "seek revenge" against Uruguay when they collide in a repeat of their infamous 2010 World Cup quarter-final.

Following their narrow 3-2 win over South Korea on Monday, Addo's side will seal their last-16 place with victory over La Celeste in their final Group H match on Friday.

There will be added spice to the clash, which comes 12 years after their notorious last-eight clash in South Africa.

After Diego Forlan cancelled out Sulley Muntari's earlier strike, Luis Suarez denied Ghana an extra-time winner when he handled Dominic Adiyiah's goalbound header on the line.

Asamoah Gyan missed the subsequent spot-kick, which was wildly celebrated by the dismissed Suarez, while Uruguay eventually advanced to the semi-finals after prevailing 4-2 on penalties.

 

But Addo insists that painful memory will not provide extra incentive for the Black Stars, who would have become the first African nation to reach the last four at the finals.

"I'm a guy who doesn't think too much in the past when this incident happened," the coach said. "I'm a strong believer if you don’t seek revenge, you get even more blessings.

"It's a different approach, a different team. [Uruguay] have very good strikers, lots of experience. They are very compact, very good. It will be very, very difficult, again.

"We are a team that knows every game will be on the edge, we have to be at our best to beat them. But I'm confident enough to know we can win this game."

Portugal will be on a revenge mission when they attempt to make it two World Cup wins out of two against Uruguay on Monday.

La Celeste dumped Portugal out of the World Cup with a 2-1 victory at the round of 16 stage in Sochi four years ago.

Edinson Cavani's double ended Portugal's quest to be crowned champions in 2018, with Uruguay then losing 2-0 in a quarter-final against France.

Fernando Santos' side took their first step towards the knockout stage in Qatar by beating Ghana 3-2 on Thursday after Uruguay had been held to a goalless draw by South Korea.

Cristiano Ronaldo opened the scoring from the penalty spot to become the first man to find the back of the net in five World Cups.

It was by no means all plain sailing for Portugal, though, and goalkeeper Diogo Costa almost gifted Ghana a last-gasp equaliser when he rolled the ball out and was robbed by Inaki Williams, but breathed a huge sigh of relief when the forward slipped.

Forward Goncalo Ramos knows Portugal face a big test when they face Diego Alonso's men in their second Group H match at Lusail Stadium 

He told reporters on Saturday: "They are very strong and dangerous. [Diego] Godín is a great player, but picking out individuals in a team with so much quality, it's not worth it."

Ramos added: "I think a team with our quality has to be favourites in any game. A draw? We don't look at any game thinking about a draw."

Uruguay could become the first team to keep six consecutive World Cup group stage clean sheets in Al Daayen.

Portugal have lost just one of their past 13 group stage games at the World Cup, that loss coming at the hands of Germany in 2014

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Portugal - Bruno Fernandes

While it was Ronaldo who took the headlines yet again following the win over Ghana, Bruno Fernandes played a huge part and he can help Portugal dictate the tempo against Uruguay.

The midfielder provided the passes for Joao Felix to put Portugal in front for a second time, and for Rafael Leao to make it 3-1.

Fernandes created more chances than any of his team-mates and became only the second Portugal player to provide two assists in a World Cup match after Jose Torres against Brazil back in 1966.

Uruguay - Federico Valverde

While Uruguay were toothless in a drab draw with South Korea, Federico Valverde did his best to get them going.

The Real Madrid midfielder struck the woodwork late on and showed the quality that has made him an important player for the European champions.

Valverde is capable of causing Portugal problems in such a big game for La Celeste as they eye a spot in the round of 16.

PREDICTION

Portugal are well fancied to be sitting pretty on six points with one group match to play.

Stats Perform's AI model has Santos' men down as having a 50.5 per cent chance of making it two victories from as many matches.

Uruguay's chances of claiming a first win of the tournament are rated at 23.4 per cent, while a draw is 26.1 per cent.

Rodrigo Bentancur says Uruguay enjoy thriving when they feel like they are out of the spotlight, ahead of a World Cup reunion with Portugal on Monday.

Four years on from their last-16 encounter in Russia, which La Celeste won 2-1 thanks to an Edinson Cavani brace, the pair will meet in a crucial Group H clash at the Lusail Iconic Stadium.

Portugal headed into that 2018 showdown as favourites - and are tipped for success again this time around, having opened with victory over Ghana while Uruguay were held to a goalless draw by South Korea. 

But Bentancur says his side are happy to fly under the radar and quietly go about their business.

"I think it will be a different game," he said. "Football has evolved. Now, we play with more intensity. We will bring our A-game, we can do lots of things to hurt them.

"We always deeply respect our opponent. If not so many things are being written about Uruguay, then that is good for us."

Meanwhile, Bentancur is set for a reunion with former Juventus team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo for the first time since the Portugal captain's controversial exit from Manchester United.

"With Cristiano, I haven't had the chance to talk to him," he added. "The last match we spoke at was when we saw each other in London, when we played against Manchester United.

"But we have a very good relationship between the two of us. He's a great person and a great player. I'm sure I will greet him, we will talk to each other, and we will hug each other."

Cristiano Ronaldo has the personality to handle any pressure that comes with being Portugal's leading man, says Fernando Santos.

Ronaldo, the record goalscorer in the history of international football, came into the World Cup with his future uncertain, after an inflammatory interview with Piers Morgan.

The 37-year-old has since left Manchester United and is playing as a free agent for the first time in his career.

Ronaldo scored Portugal's opener in their 3-2 win over Ghana on Thursday, becoming the first male player to score at five separate World Cup finals in the process.

And Santos shrugged off the suggestion Portugal place too much pressure on their captain's shoulders.

"We have players that are more visible than others and they need to deal with that, with the high priority and pressure," Santos said in a press conference ahead of Portugal's second Group H game against Uruguay.

"They express themselves in one particular way. There are players who are more extroverted, those more introverted, the most important thing is they play as a group, play together as one team.

"As far as Cristiano is concerned, I've known him for many years, since he was 19, we have other players that share the same personality.

"Little by little he has gained more experience, and understands this pressure, but we also take into account other players, not only Cristiano Ronaldo."

Another experienced campaigner in Santos' squad is Ronaldo's former Real Madrid club-mate Pepe, with the 39-year-old centre-back potentially in line to feature against Uruguay after Danilo suffered an injury to his ribs in the win over Ghana.

"He's a monster, Pepe is a monster," Santos said of the defender. "Someone who has a huge role, there's no doubt."

Ronaldo started with Joao Felix in a front two against Ghana, though Santos also has Milan star Rafael Leao, who scored with his first touch after coming on a substitute, to call on.

Asked if he would consider starting the trio together, Santos replied: "Of course it's possible, we did not come here with labels of one, two or three starters.

"We will line them up according to our needs, I'm serious about it. We have choices, and no player will be excluded, but we should not address this with an individual perspective, but as a collective.

"That's what we did against Ghana. In the first half we played very well, Ghana could not enter our area. In the last 30 minutes we should have been more aggressive because I know my players are capable. We were perhaps overconfident, but we can be confident if we are more aggressive.

"Our advantage is that we have a plethora of players that we can use. Our players are free to play, the only thing that I ask them is to follow my instructions. We will not hold our players on a tight leash – we let them free."

South Korea coach Paulo Bento was pleased with his side’s performance in their goalless draw with Uruguay and urged supporters not to focus too much on the fitness of star striker Son Heung-min.

Tottenham forward Son’s availability was in doubt until just before kick-off due to a fractured eye socket sustained earlier this month but – aided by a facemask – he played the full game, producing occasional flashes in a largely subdued display.

His ineffectiveness was replicated by the other attacking stars on show – Uruguay’s strikeforce of Darwin Nunez and Luis Suarez also failing to make any meaningful impact in a drab encounter in World Cup Group H.

Uruguay came closest to finding a winner with both Diego Godin and Federico Valverde hitting the woodwork, the latter in the closing minutes.

Of Son, Bento said: "Son is a player that up until his injury had continuous rhythm. And then, in one of the last games in the Champions League, he had a serious injury and was inactive for a long period of time. He was only reintegrated in the last few days.

"After the injury, it’s natural that it will take him some time to re-adapt.

"But overall, I thought our team had a good performance and we focus too much on one player. We, as coaches, value all the elements of the team."

Bento was particularly pleased that his side were able to match Uruguay’s levels of aggression, adding: "That was definitely one of the positives. We knew our opponent played intense football and we needed to up our game and we managed to do that in the first half, in particular.

"Of course, our performance diminished in the second half, but we tried to maintain that level of aggression."

Uruguay boss Diego Alonso fended off criticism of his team’s cautious approach, pointing out his starting XI was full of attacking intent.

"We had three forwards on the pitch, three midfielders that score goals and full-backs that like to get forward," he said.

"In the first 20 minutes, we could not pressure South Korea and we had to adjust. After that, the second half was different and we were better. I liked a lot of things the players did."

Valverde was named man of the match for a typically all-action display but felt Uruguay left it too late to find their rhythm.

The Real Madrid midfielder said: "In the first half, South Korea moved the ball very well and we struggled to put any pressure on them. In the second half, we played very well although there were too many balls passed backwards by the midfielders, including me, when we should’ve brought it forward.

"Towards the end, we played in a courageous way and played our football, creating chances. You have to take your chances but, unfortunately, we didn’t score."

 

Son Heung-min's inclusion failed to inspire South Korea as his side played out a disappointing 0-0 draw with Uruguay in World Cup Group H.

Son's participation had been in doubt in the build-up after the Tottenham striker fractured an eye socket in the Champions League clash with Marseille on November 1.

He was declared fit, aided by a facemask, but, a few nice touches aside, failed to impact the game the way coach Paulo Bento would have liked - and it could have been much worse for the Asian side had Federico Valverde's late piledriver gone in rather than rattled the post.

Valverde's effort was a rare moment of inspiration for Uruguay as Darwin Nunez and Luis Suarez toiled with both teams adopting a safety-first approach, wary of losing their opening game and putting their qualification hopes at risk.

Hwang Ui-jo had South Korea's best chance, firing over the bar from eight yards after 34 minutes, while Diego Godin also struck the woodwork for Uruguay.

The long ball from the left-side of defence to the right-wing appeared Uruguay's greatest attacking weapon in the early stages and it produced two chances in the space of three minutes.

From the first, Valverde took down Jose Gimenez’s pass and fired left-footed over the top, and shortly afterwards, another Gimenez pass was nodded back across goal by Facundo Pellistri but Nunez missed his kick from six yards out.

South Korea were neat and industrious but lacked a cutting edge. And when they did carve out an opening, it was promptly squandered, Hwang missing he target after Kim Moon-hwan had escaped down the right.

The best chance of the opening half came after 43 minutes when Godin rose highest to meet Valverde’s corner but placed his header against the left-hand upright with Korea keeper Kim Seung-gyu beaten.

The second period lacked any attacking cohesion, although the few chances that were created fell the way of Uruguay.

Nunez saw a low cross, intended for Suarez, palmed away by Kim Seung-gyu, substitute Edinson Cavani had a shot blocked by the sliding challenge of Kim Min-jae while, 10 minutes from time, Nunez curled an effort wide from the edge of the box.

The best moment came in the last minute of normal time, however, Valverde lining one up from 30 yards and crashing his shot against the woodwork.

Sometimes, one Kim is just not enough.

South Korea certainly thought so after naming an entire defence with the surname of Kim for their World Cup Group H opener against Uruguay on Thursday. If that wasn't enough, their goalkeeper was also called Kim!

Kim Seung-gyu will don the gloves, while the back four comprises Kim Jin-su, Kim Min-jae, Kim Moon-hwan and Kim Young-gwon.

To confuse observers further, the line-up also included two Hwangs! Pity the commentators!

 

Son Heung-min was passed fit for South Korea to start their World Cup opener against Uruguay at Education City Stadium on Thursday.

The Tottenham forward fractured an eye socket in the Champions League game against Marseille on November 1 and donned a facemask to take on the South Americans.

His availability was a big boost for coach Paulo Bento as the Koreans looked to get their Group H campaign off to a winning start.

Son entered the game one goal short of becoming South Korea's joint-top World Cup goalscorer and only the second player from the country to score in three separate World Cups after Park Ji-sung, who netted once in each of the 2002, 2006 and 2010 tournaments.

Uruguay started the game with a front two of Darwin Nunez and Luis Suarez, with Edinson Cavani still struggling to shake off an ankle injury.

The fitness of Son Heung-min has dominated the agenda in South Korea over the past three weeks and his availability for their World Cup opener against Uruguay remains in the balance.

The Tottenham striker suffered a fractured eye socket in the Champions League clash with Marseille on November 1 - an injury that has kept a nation on tenterhooks ever since.

He has worn a mask in training since undergoing surgery and was pictured heading the ball for the first time in training on Monday. Coach Paulo Bento has been happy to keep fans guessing, placing a gagging order on the Koreans discussing Son's injury with the media.

In the unlikely event he doesn't make it, it will create a headache for Bento given the strength of Korea's other attacking options.

Hwang Hee-chan has yet to score in 11 appearances for Premier League strugglers Wolves this season while Hwang Ui-jo has fared similarly at Greek side Olympiacos.

While Korea fret over the status of their experienced striker, Uruguay can count on at least one of theirs.

Although Edinson Cavani may miss out due to an ankle injury, Luis Suarez is fit and raring to go in what will be his final World Cup.

It may be his swansong at this level but former Uruguay forward Diego Forlan does not believe that will give the 35-year-old extra motivation.

Forlan told El Pais: "For Luis, just putting on the Uruguay shirt is motivation enough. He's always going to want to do things right because that's his nature. He won't have extra motivation because it's his last World Cup."

South Korea and Uruguay are joined in Group H by Portugal and Ghana and Forlan is aware of the importance of the opening game.

He added: "I think Uruguay are looking good. We have an even group, although we are always competitive.

"The first game is key, especially as it's an even group and then we play Portugal, who I think are better than they were at the last World Cup."


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Uruguay - Luis Suarez

Suarez may no longer be the scourge of European defences following his move to Nacional, but he has continued to find success, helping his boyhood club to the Uruguayan title. MLS seems his next move, and he will be hoping to put himself in the spotlight with some trademark feisty displays in Qatar.

Suarez needs one more goal to equal Oscar Miguez's record of eight by a Uruguayan at the World Cup.


South Korea - Son Heung-min

It seems inconceivable that Son won't start in the mask he has donned in training since arriving in Qatar.

The 30-year-old could become just the second Korean to score at three separate World Cups, after Park Ji-sung, if he can find the target in the 2022 edition.


PREDICTION

Even if Son is passed fit, the odds are weighted in Uruguay's favour.

Stats Perform's AI model gives the South Americans a 56.2 per cent chance of victory at Education City Stadium with South Korea's chances of claiming three vital points are rated at just 18.9 per cent. If Korea can get off to a good start then a draw - which comes in at 24.9 per cent - is a possibility.

History certainly favours Uruguay, who have won all four of their World Cup matches against Asian nations, keeping a clean sheet in three of those.

Son Heung-min is comfortable having to wear a protective mask in order to play against Uruguay, with South Korea coach Paulo Bento confident his star player is fit.

Tottenham forward Son sustained a fractured eye socket in Spurs' clash with Marseille at the start of November, casting doubt over his participation in Qatar.

However, he was named in Bento's squad and has returned to training wearing a mask in order to shield the injury from further damage.

Korea open their Group H campaign against Uruguay on Thursday, and Bento has confidence that Son has fully recovered, though conceded there is an element of risk.

"Sonny can play, yes. He will be able to play," Bento said.

"I think the fact that he would be wearing a mask is not an inconvenience for him, it's rather natural.

"We have stuck to the plan since we arrived here, also the way we integrated him into our group shows that it has been natural, except in the final training stages.

"We will see how it will be. Our hope is that he will feel comfortable to the greatest extent possible, and we will use the best strategy so he can feel at ease during the game.

"He knows and we know that we cannot rule out any risks."

 

Son is Korea's joint-leading World Cup goalscorer, having scored three times in the competition, and he is aiming to become only the second player from the nation to score in three separate editions of the tournament after Park Ji-sung.

While Korea are heavily reliant on Son to lead their attack, Uruguay are blessed with three exceptional forwards in the form of veteran campaigners Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, along with Liverpool striker Darwin Nunez.

"With our strikers, our plan is to put a good performance in the first game, that's for sure. We are very much excited with what we can produce," said Uruguay coach Diego Alonso.

"We have peace of mind because we have goalscoring opportunities, flexibility not only with our strikers, we are good defensively and this will make us a very competitive team."

While Alonso would not apply extra pressure on his team, captain Diego Godin says Uruguayan players always have "big shoes to fill".

"The qualification round had ups and downs but we achieved our goal," he said.

"The World Cup is an objective but it is still far away, but this history and this shirt requires us to win. We have very big shoes to fill when we are representing our country."

Korea boss Bento, meanwhile, also stressed that Suarez, Cavani and Nunez are not the only players his team have to worry about at Education City Stadium.

"I would say Federico Valverde is a fantastic player," he replied when asked about the Real Madrid midfielder. 

"Together with [Kevin] De Bruyne he's one of the best midfielders in the world, a player who can actually win the game.

"Collectively they are very strong, and we have to cope with the power they have as well as the individual skill sets."

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