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World Cup Previews: Uruguay looking to spring a surprise in Russia
May 26, 2018 | 4:47 PM
by Reuters
Uruguay players pictured during a training session in Montevideo. Photo - Reuters
 
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A SMOOTH qualifying campaign spearheaded by their strikers and marked by the emergence of youth has given former champions Uruguay reasons to be optimistic about their chances at the World Cup in Russia next month.

Uruguay, winners of the inaugural World Cup in 1930 and again in 1950, won nine and drew four of their 18 games in the South American qualifying competition to finish second among 10 teams, ahead of Argentina and behind five-time world champions Brazil.

Progress to the finals was in stark contrast to previous qualifying campaigns when Uruguay scraped through to the finals via intercontinental playoffs in 2002, 2010 and 2014 after missing out altogether in 2006.

Up against hosts Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in Group A at this year's World Cup, Uruguay will consider themselves firm favourites to advance to the round of 16, a feat they have always managed under coach Oscar Tabarez.



They could, however, face a potentially difficult test against Spain or Portugal in the first knockout stage.

One more reason for Uruguay to feel upbeat heading to Russia was their strong showing in front of goal during qualifying. 'La Celeste' scored 32 goals, a tally bettered only by Brazil who netted 41.



Edinson Cavani scored 10 times, twice as many as fellow striker Luis Suarez, while the team's overall attacking threat was emphasised by players chipping in with goals from all over the pitch.

Uruguay also successfully blooded a number of energetic young midfielders, who added plenty of running power and creativity to the attack.

Midfielders Federico Valverde (19), Nahitan Nandez (22) and Rodrigo Bentancur (20) have added vigour and provided additional options for the coach as Uruguay look to shed their image as a deep-defending, counter-attacking side.

With one of world football's most fearsome attacking partnerships in Suarez and Cavani as well as a wily coach in Tabarez who can get the best out of the players, Uruguay have the potential to be difficult opponents to the best of teams.

"Uruguay are an awkward side and no one likes to play against us, which is a lovely feeling," former skipper Diego Forlan said recently.

"We're a small country and if you look at it that way, we're at a disadvantage, though I know that most of the players who know or have come up against Uruguayans prefer to avoid us."

Factbox

FIFA ranking: 17 (till June 7)

Previous tournaments

Uruguay have played in 12 World Cups and have won the tournament twice, as hosts in the inaugural edition in 1930 and again in 1950 in Brazil. After failing to qualify for the 2006 event in Germany, they sprang a surprise by reaching the semi-finals in South Africa four years later. Uruguay reached the round of 16 in Brazil in 2014, where they were beaten by fellow South Americans Colombia.

Coach: Oscar Tabarez

Tabarez, 71, took charge of Uruguay for a second spell in 2006 and the coach, fondly known as 'El Maestro', will lead the national team into their third consecutive World Cup since they failed to qualify in the year of his appointment. Tabarez, whose previous stint with Uruguay was between 1988-90, guided the team to a record 15th Copa America title in 2011 and fourth place in the 2010 World Cup. A coach who has excelled in building teams with a mixture of youth and experience, Tabarez introduced many young players who played key roles during Uruguay's qualifying campaign. The veteran coach has in the past preferred a system that hinges on sturdy defending and counter-punching although he has shown flexibility in his approach more recently.

Key players

Luis Suarez: The mercurial striker will hope for a controversy-free event after he was handed a lengthy ban from soccer for biting Italy's Giorgio Chiellini during a group-stage encounter in Brazil four years ago. The 31-year-old has worked on his discipline since moving to Spanish side Barcelona in 2014 and continues to plunder goals at the club level. Suarez netted five times in Uruguay's qualifying campaign and stamped his authority as the national team's all-time leading scorer with his 50th goal during the China Cup tournament earlier this year.

Edinson Cavani: The powerful forward was the top scorer for Uruguay during their World Cup qualifying campaign with 10 goals and finished ahead of players such as Argentina's Lionel Messi, who had seven, and Brazil's Neymar, who had six. The Paris St Germain striker will attempt to improve his World Cup scoring record in Russia, with the 31-year-old having found the net just twice in 10 games at the main tournament.

Diego Godin: With more than 100 appearances for the national team, the Atletico Madrid defender offers valuable experience at the heart of Uruguay's defence. The 32-year-old has shown that he can be equally effective when required at the other end of the pitch, scoring three goals early on in qualifying.

Form guide

After reaching the World Cup finals with relative ease, Uruguay were held to a goalless draw by Poland and were beaten 2-1 by Austria in forgettable international friendlies at the end of last year. However, they beat the Czech Republic 2-0 in their China Cup opener before edging past Wales 1-0 to lift the title in March.

How they qualified

After progressing to the World Cup via playoffs in their previous two attempts, Uruguay sealed an automatic berth this year after they finished second in South American qualifying, behind Brazil and ahead of Argentina. Tabarez's side won nine of their 18 games and scored 32 goals in the process, bettered only by five-times world champions Brazil, who had 41 goals.

Prospects

Uruguay have never failed to get out of the group stages under Tabarez and the former champions will consider themselves firm favourites to advance from Group A, which also features hosts Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. However, Uruguay could face a tough test in the round of 16 with Spain or Portugal their likely opponents.

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