Uruguay vs. Northern Ireland: 6 Things We Learned
Uruguay began their World Cup preparations with an uninspiring 1-0 victory over Northern Ireland at the Estadio Centenario on Friday.
Uruguay had the majority of the play but did not create that many good chances against their understrength but hardworking visitors. After a goalless first half, Christian Stuani’s 61st-minute strike proved sufficient to separate the teams on a rainy night in Montevideo.
Here are six things we learned from Uruguay vs. Northern Ireland.
Gaston Ramirez Is Not the Answer to Uruguay’s Creativity Problems
Gaston Ramirez was given a start on the right of midfield but failed to make the most of the chance to stake his claim for a starting berth at the World Cup. He was involved in a couple of promising moves during the first half but was not a regular influence on the match.
In truth, Uruguay coach Oscar Washington Tabarez is likely to prefer a more functional player, such as Stuani or Alvaro Gonzalez, for the Group D matches against England and Italy, but Ramirez did have an opportunity to show that he should start in Uruguay’s opener against Costa Rica on June 14.
Instead, while Ramirez struggled to make an impact, Nicolas Lodeiro—a 65th-minute substitute—impressed, zipping about the pitch and having a couple of efforts on goal. Of the two, it is Lodeiro who looks far more likely to be heavily involved in Uruguay’s World Cup campaign.
Coates Is in Decent Shape
Prior to joining Uruguay’s training camp, Sebastian Coates had played just 578 minutes of football since returning from major knee surgery. Friday’s match was a chance for the Liverpool-owned defender to prove that he is fit enough to be part of the World Cup squad, and he generally acquitted himself well.
On loan at Nacional this season, Coates was not called into regular action in his 45 minutes on the pitch, but he made a couple of solid clearances and did not appear to have any trouble accelerating in pursuit of the ball. For a player who does sometimes carry a little extra bulk, he looked in good shape.
Tabarez and his medical staff will obviously also take into account Coates’ training performance in deciding whether or not to take him to Brazil, but his display on Friday provided no further reason for concern and might just have been enough to see him included.
Luis Suarez Is Badly Missed
Luis Suarez has been a near ever-present for Uruguay since the last World Cup and was their top scorer during qualifying, with 11 goals in 14 appearances. Any team would miss a player of his quality, but it was still surprising to see just how much Uruguay struggled without him.
Diego Forlan and Edinson Cavani had the makings of a solid partnership, but despite some decent movement, they struggled to create much of note in the first half. Uruguay’s best chance of the opening period, which saw Cavani, then Forlan have efforts on goal brilliantly saved by Roy Carroll, came after the visitors had sloppily given the ball away inside their own half.
Forlan gave way for Stuani at half-time. Stuani, who has often been deployed on the right of midfield for the national team, scored the only goal of the match from a Cavani cutback but wasn’t regularly involved otherwise. Abel Hernandez, who replaced Cavani in the 65th minute, was unable to make much of an impact in his time on the pitch.
In truth, Uruguay’s struggles on Friday had more to do with a lack of creativity in midfield than the performance of their forwards, but there is no doubt that their attacking output will improve once Suarez returns from injury.
Uruguay Remain Most Effective on the Counter-Attack
Uruguay are a potent side on the counter-attack but often struggle when asked to take the initiative themselves. Home draws against Ecuador, Paraguay and Venezuela during qualifying highlighted their lack of imagination in midfield, and this was again evident on Friday.
The home side’s best chance during a disjointed first-half performance came from a misplaced pass from the visitors, and they were again unable to create much of note in the first quarter-hour of the second half. There was little pace to their attacks, allowing Northern Ireland to get men back behind the ball and defend with relative ease.
It was a moment of genuine quality from Cristian Rodriguez that opened up the away defence for the only goal of the match, scored by Stuani on 61 minutes, but such inspiration was otherwise lacking until the introduction of Lodeiro in the 65th minute.
Of Uruguay’s three group-stage matches, only the opener against Costa Rica will see them primarily on the front foot, and Tabarez is therefore unlikely to be unduly concerned. His side’s approach is tailor-made for knockout football, as their run to the semi-finals of the last World Cup and victory in the 2011 Copa America proved.
If they can make it out of the group, they could still go far into the competition.
Tabarez Needs to Be More Adventurous Against Costa Rica
It can be assumed that Northern Ireland were supposed to provide a crude approximation of the football Uruguay should expect from England, but the match is likely to have proved more useful in preparing them for their World Cup opener.
Costa Rica will adopt a similarly defensive approach on June 14, and Friday’s match showed that Tabarez will have to be more adventurous in his team selection if he hopes to come away from that fixture with all three points.
Martin Caceres did not get forward regularly from left-back, both central midfielders were content just to sit in front of the defence and Ramirez provided little dynamism on the right.
The introduction of Lodeiro changed the tempo of Uruguay’s play, and he surely has to start against Costa Rica. Hernandez, Alvaro Pereira and, if he makes the squad, Alejandro Silva are other options Tabarez has to consider in order to inject a little more variety into his side's play.
It’s Not All Doom and Gloom for Northern Ireland
Michael O’Neill may have won just one of his 18 matches in charge of Northern Ireland to date, but he will have been very encouraged by his side’s performance on Friday.
His three-man central defence, which included debutant Luke McCullough, were alert to danger and generally performed well in limiting Uruguay’s attacking threat. Steven Davis covered a lot of ground in midfield, while Shane Ferguson was neat and tidy down the left.
Considering they were without a number of their regular starters, they gave a very good account of themselves.
Northern Ireland have been drawn with Faroe Islands, Finland, Greece, Hungary and Romania in their qualifying group for Euro 2016. With two automatic places and one playoff berth on offer, O’Neill will feel that with performances of a similar quality to that which they managed on Friday, they may have an outside chance of reaching the finals.