Uruguay laboured to a 1-0 victory over Northern Ireland in their first pre-World Cup friendly, with neither Diego Forlan nor Edinson Cavani impressing in the absence of Luis Suarez. The door could now be open for Abel Hernandez to claim a starting berth if he can perform well against Slovenia on Wednesday.
Unless Suarez makes a quicker-than-expected recovery, the likelihood is that Forlan and Cavani will start against Costa Rica in Uruguay's World Cup opener on June 14. However, if coach Oscar Washington Tabarez is looking for as close a like-for-like replacement for Suarez as is available in his selected squad, Hernandez is the best candidate.
The story of Hernandez’s career to date has primarily been one of unfulfilled promise.
Star performances for Uruguay at U-20 level earned him a move to Europe with Palermo, and he made his senior international debut in 2010 on the back of an encouraging sophomore season in Italy. He has, however, failed to convert that early potential into consistent performances at either club or international level since.
Indeed, as per Football Italia, in 2012 he incurred the wrath of famously outspoken Palermo owner Maurizio Zamparini, who accused him of spending too much time in the city’s nightclubs. “He needs to get into his head that he must live the life of an athlete,” Zamparini told reporters.
Thankfully, Hernandez appears to have gotten back on track over the course of the last year.
He missed the majority of the 2012-13 campaign with a knee injury but returned refreshed for the new season. He initially angled for a move to another club—enraging then-coach Gennaro Gattuso, as per La Repubblica (h/t Football Italia)—but when a transfer didn’t materialise, he knuckled down to assist Palermo in their bid for promotion.
He scored 14 goals in 28 appearances, as per Soccerway, as the club achieved their target in some style, finishing 14 points clear of their nearest challengers.
“My life has changed this season...,” Hernandez told La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Forza Italian Football). “The Palermo nightlife? The past is gone, now I go to church with mom.”
His performances were sufficiently impressive to attract the attention of Internazionale, as per La Gazzetta della Sport (h/t Ultra Palermo) and see him included in Uruguay’s World Cup squad ahead of the likes of Giorgian de Arrascaeta and Gonzalo Castro.
Hernandez’s goal in the 3-1 victory at home to Cittadella (see above) was pure Suarez. He took the ball into the area and twisted one way then the other before curling an early shot into the far corner of the net.
It was the kind of genius that Suarez produces on a semi-regular basis, and Hernandez only produces sporadically, but his unpredictable brilliance may be exactly what Tabarez needs to enliven an attack that was decidedly stale against Northern Ireland.
If given minutes against Slovenia, Hernandez has to show that he is capable of providing that little extra bit of verticality that Uruguay lack when Suarez is unavailable. He needs to play with energy and conviction, involve himself as much as possible and be unafraid of making mistakes.
Tabarez is unlikely to be looking for a neat and tidy performance. Hernandez is in the squad as a wild card and has to show that he can be a difference-maker if he wants to force his way into the starting XI.