By Shrivathsa Sridhar
(Reuters) – 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-times 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.”
(Editing by Toby Davis)