Assessing Uruguay's Chances of Being Genuine Contenders at World Cup 2014
The 2012-13 season could not have been much worse for Uruguay. But after a dire run of defeats and draws, there was light at the end of the tunnel in the shape of the Confederations Cup. For the first time in 12 months, there is optimism around Oscar Tabarez's side.
The Celeste had endured a torrid spell ahead of the international tournament. A 4-0 drubbing away to Colombia set the trend; six World Cup qualifiers, four defeats and two draws, a run which saw the South Americans fall out of CONMEBOL's places for Brazil 2014 and into serious danger of elimination.
An impressive away win against Venezuela in June set the tone for recovery. Uruguay matched some of the world's best teams at the Confederations Cup, losing by just one goal to finalists Brazil and Spain before missing out on third place on penalties to Italy. A team that looked tired and finished just months before suddenly had new life in Brazil, and they were welcomed home to a warm reception from fans.
Could the Celeste dream of taking that form into the World Cup and be serious candidates for the title?
While encouraging, the Confederations Cup should also serve as a dose of reality for the side led by Diego Lugano. Spain and Brazil, two sides who without question will be among the favourites in 2014, both demonstrated that they are currently far beyond Uruguay's reach both technically and physically.
Behind that pair, Argentina, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy will all begin the tournament rated higher than the Celeste.
Being the underdog has rarely bothered them. After all, nobody expected that grinding, tortured run to the semi-final in 2010, marked by Diego Forlan's brilliance, Luis Suarez's handball and Sebastian Abreu's fearless Panenka penalty. Nor in 2011, when Tabarez's men overcame hosts Argentina on their way to winning the Copa America.
But that was then. Uruguay in 2013 are not the same team as two years ago, most notably in defence. Those intervening months have been hard on Lugano, who, despite still posing a notable presence on the pitch, is a shadow of the towering defender he was in 2010 and 2011. Beside him, Diego Godin looks bereft of confidence without his partner at his best.
The attack is if anything in better shape. Still aided by the ageless Forlan, Edinson Cavani have improved their game in the last two years and can lay claim to be named among the top five strikers in the world today.
But their skills are useless if the ball does not reach them. Stuck between sending out a midfield with creative bite and one which backs up a shaky defence, Tabarez has to opt for the latter; and it shows in the lack of invention to release those stars.
Anything can happen in a major world tournament, that goes without saying. But right now Uruguay must focus on qualifying for the World Cup itself over dreams of lifting their third title. Currently fifth and tied with Venezuela for the group's play-off spot, the Celeste have four games in which to ensure their place in Brazil.
With clashes against leading sides Argentina, Colombia and Ecuador included in that series, nothing whatsoever can be taken for granted.
It is safe to sat that, even should they go through, few will be expecting miracles from Uruguay at the World Cup. Luckily for Oscar Tabarez and his resilient charges, it is under that low profile that the South Americans feel most comfortable, and they have already proved that they can progress far with low expectations.
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