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Don’t Ever Say Edinson Cavani Isn’t Clutch

The striker quieted his naysayers with both goals in Uruguay’s 2-1 victory over Portugal, which could be the last time we see Cristiano Ronaldo in a World Cup

Uruguay v Portugal: Round of 16 - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

For years, Edinson Cavani has shouldered the burden of every marquee striker. He’s notched 228 league goals for Palermo, Napoli, and Paris Saint-Germain over the past 12 seasons, claimed titles in each domestic league he has appeared in, topped all goalscorers in France two years running, and captured the Copa América with Uruguay in 2011. And still, tabloids from Paris to Montevideo have often maligned the striker. He isn’t clutch, they said. He folds in the biggest moments.

On Saturday, against Portugal in the World Cup round of 16, Cavani addressed that ire head-on. The 31-year-old striker — one of the two most prolific forwards in La Celeste’s history — scored twice before hobbling off with a hamstring injury in the 74th minute, delivering Uruguay a 2–1 victory and a quarterfinals date Friday with France.

Cavani’s first was the result of a beautiful build-up play between himself and Luis Suárez, the only Uruguayan with more goals to his name. After holding off a persistent Portuguese attack during the game’s opening minutes, Uruguay found a window. Cavani switched the field with a 40-yard pass to Suárez, who corralled it, sized up Portuguese right back Ricardo Pereira, and launched an inch-perfect cross into the box. Cavani met the ball behind the back line and bodied it just past Rui Patricio to put the South Americans up, 1–0. It was Uruguay’s first shot of the contest. It was not Cavani’s last.

In the 62nd minute, after Pepe equalized with a header off a corner kick, it was again Cavani who gave Uruguay the advantage. Rodrigo Bentancur corralled a ball at the center of the pitch and threaded it between four Portuguese defenders to find Cavani unmarked. An anxious or less-skilled striker might have hesitated, or tried to dribble the ball deeper into the box. Instead, Cavani calmly measured his steps, never once breaking eye contact with his target, and swung at the rolling ball on his first touch. No keeper would have had a chance to stop it as it curled deliciously past Patricio into the bottom corner of the net.

Entering the game, most anticipated a dull affair, punctuated by a few quick counter attacks. It was anything but. After falling into an early hole, Portugal stayed on their front feet, taking 20 shots to Uruguay’s five, and winning 10 corners. In the second half, Portugal outshot their foes 12–1, with the lone Uruguayan strike coming from Cavani’s boot.

The early exit will be a disappointment to Portuguese fans, who clamored for a repeat of 2016’s European championships, when Portugal used an opportunistic counterattack to bully their way to a continental title. A round of 16 matchup with Uruguay — described by some as a game between the Uruguay of Europe versus the Portugal of South America — was less ideal than playing Russia, Group B victors Spain’s opposition on Sunday. Still, Portugal had every opportunity to equalize, and held more than two-thirds of possession in the loss.

When France bested Argentina in Kazan on Saturday morning, it meant saying goodbye to Messi, a legend of the game. The same is true of the outcome in Sochi. Uruguay’s well-rounded squad gives them a better chance of moving on in the coming days, but Portugal’s loss potentially means the last we’ll see of Ronaldo at a World Cup. The Real Madrid forward is 33, and will inevitably decline in coming years (though his physique would beg to differ). If this was his World Cup curtain call, he certainly made his mark. He played every minute for his team and tallied four goals, including this free kick to cap a hat trick in their 3–3 opener with Spain.

Four years from now, in Qatar, Ronaldo may still be pacing up and down the Portuguese flank, fighting off father time at the age of 37. But for now, the focus moves to Uruguay. There’s no word yet on how serious Cavani’s injury is, but even without him, they have the talent to challenge France.

Coming into the World Cup, most agreed that if Uruguay had any hope of making a deep run, they’d need consistent output from their two attacking stars, Cavani and Suárez, and steady play in the back from defensive stalwarts and Atlético Madrid teammates Diego Godín and José María Giménez. In the preliminary round, Suárez and Cavani combined for three goals and the defense didn’t allow a single goal in their three-game sweep — a first for a nation that won two of the first four World Cups and has participated in 13 of the 21. That success is striking, but with Cavani nursing a hamstring injury, this could be the end of Uruguay’s road.

“I hope it’s nothing,” Cavani told reporters after the match. “We’ll see what happens, we’ll do exams.” Even if he misses the next match, it will be hard for detractors to ever question him again in the clutch.