5 Things Uruguay Coach Oscar Tabarez Should Test vs. Northern Ireland
On Friday night, Uruguay host Northern Ireland in the first of two pre-World Cup friendlies in Montevideo. It is an opportunity for Oscar Washington Tabarez to fine-tune his side ahead of their first group stage match against Costa Rica on June 14.
With FIFA’s deadline for submission of the final 23-man World Cup squads fast looming, there will be a number of players keen to make a strong impression on Friday. Tabarez also has some tactical issues that he will be glad to have a chance to work through in a match environment.
Here are five things Tabarez should test against Northern Ireland.
A Suarez-Less Attack
Luis Suarez started 16 of Uruguay’s 18 matches (including the continental playoff against Jordan) during qualifying, as per Soccerway, and has started nearly 90 percent (author calculation) of their competitive matches since the last World Cup.
Suarez will not, however, be available to Tabarez on Friday after undergoing keyhole knee surgery last week. As per Matt Law of The Telegraph, his recovery seems to be going well, but it is still highly doubtful he will be fit in time for Uruguay’s World Cup opener against Costa Rica.
Tabarez has paired Diego Forlan and Edinson Cavani up front in training, and they are almost certain to start on Friday. Despite his advancing years, Forlan is still capable of moments of match-winning quality, while Cavani has flourished since being moved in a central role, scoring six goals in his last eight internationals, as per Soccerway.
They will hope to prove to Tabarez that they are more than capable of leading Uruguay’s attack against Costa Rica.
Abel Hernandez seems to have been around forever. He made his international debut in 2010 on the back of a highly encouraging sophomore season in Italy with Palermo, but he has failed to turn that early promise into consistent performances at either club or international level.
The current season has, however, provided some hope that his best is still to come. Palermo’s relegation to Serie B has provided Hernandez with regular first-team opportunities, and he has responded superbly, scoring 14 times in their still ongoing yet already successful promotion campaign.
Dropping down a division seems to have restored his mojo, and he has carried his club form into Uruguay’s training camp in Montevideo. As per El Observador (in Spanish), he scored four goals in a practice match against a local side and has generally looked fit and sharp.
With his lightning pace and direct, unpredictable dribbling style, Hernandez is probably Uruguay's closest like-for-like replacement for Suarez. If he can impress from the bench on Friday, he will secure his position as first backup until Suarez’s return.
His Creative Options
Uruguay are excellent on the counter-attack but are less comfortable when asked to take the initiative. Home draws against Ecuador, Paraguay and Venezuela during qualifying highlighted their lack of creative spark against teams who sit back and hit them on the break.
The World Cup group stage matches against England and Italy are likely to be relatively well-balanced, but Uruguay will be expected to make the running in their opening fixture against Costa Rica. Friday’s match is therefore an ideal opportunity to test a more proactive approach.
To this end, the likely inclusion of Gaston Ramirez in Tabarez’s starting XI is an intriguing one.
Ramirez is expected to line up on the right of midfield in place of the solid and hard-working Christian Stuani and could be the one to provide that extra bit of ingenuity that Uruguay sometimes lack. The Southampton midfielder was not a regular starter during the qualifiers, nor has he performed to a high level for the national team in the past, but he will have an opportunity to show what he can do on Friday.
Nicolas Lodeiro is the other creative option available to Tabarez. He will probably start on the bench, but it will be interesting to see whether Tabarez is tempted to test him and Ramirez in tandem during the second half. In alliance, they could provide the key to unlocking massed defences.
Diego Perez, Egidio Arevalo Rios, Sebastian Eguren and Walter Gargano have formed an unshakeable central-midfield core in each of Uruguay’s last three tournament squads (2010 World Cup, 2011 Copa America and 2013 Confederations Cup), but they may finally be broken up this summer.
Arevalo Rios and Gargano are Tabarez’s likely first-choice pairing, but Perez, and particularly Eguren, are on shaky ground. With the likes of Alvaro Gonzalez and Nicolas Lodeiro both capable of playing in the centre of midfield if required, the need for four out-and-out central midfielders has been reduced.
Eguren was surprised to be called up to the preliminary squad—having been omitted from each of Tabarez’s two previous call-ups—and is the one most likely to drop out. Both he and Perez will hope for one last opportunity to prove their worth on Friday.
The Fitness of Sebastian Coates
Sebastian Coates has been facing a race against time to get himself fit for the World Cup after undergoing major knee surgery last August.
The Liverpool-owned defender only received the all-clear to resume full-contact training in March, as per Tenfield (in Spanish), and had played just 578 minutes of football on loan at Nacional before joining up with the Uruguay squad.
He is, however, feeling positive about his recovery, as per El Observador (in Spanish), and will get a chance to prove his fitness on Friday, when he will stand in for Diego Godin alongside Diego Lugano in the centre of the Uruguayan defence.
Tabarez has already shown great faith in Coates by including him in his preliminary squad and is clearly keen to have the towering centre-back at his disposal in Brazil. Coates now needs to show that he is up to the task.