Oscar Tabarez had been all business before the world cup kicked off, stressing the importance of successfully negotiating the group stage above all else. Now, however, El Maestro can set loftier targets for Uruguay after having masterminded their passage through what was on paper one of the toughest groups. Tabarez is now targeting a semi final place – Uruguay’s first since 1970: “There
The team’s forward line has garnered most of the plaudits for La Celeste’s fine world cup so far, but just as important has been the defensive line, which is yet to concede a goal. Their contribution has not been lost on Luis Suarez: “We feel very safe with them and we have to have confidence in the great team we’ve got.” Before the tournament, some pundits had highlighted the Uruguay defence as the weak link that would prove their undoing. However, in spite of shifting formations and personnel over the course of their three group games, they have been absolutely watertight at the back. While the reliability of captain Diego Lugano and Diego Godin has been noteworthy, the role of the expected fringe players in Tabarez’s squad has been remarkable. Chile-based centre back Mauricio Victorino was not expected to play a significant role in South Africa, yet he has been involved in every game, a brave, commanding presence at the heart of the side’s rearguard. Equally, left back Jorge Fucile had met with disdain from sections of La Celeste’s support following a season of indifferent showings for club and country. Regaining his place for Uruguay’s second game as El Maestro switched from 3-4-1-2 to 4-3-1-2, however, Fucile excelled as a tough-tackling livewire who was effective in defence and attack. Retaining his place for the crucial game against Mexico, Fucile was even better, turning in a man of the match display.
Tabarez’s change of formation has been another key to Uruguay’s dream start. Cumbersome and unambitious in their 3-4-1-2 system against France, the change unleashed the team’s attackers, while retaining the disciplined defence and two holding midfielders. The decision to drop Diego Forlan back from his role as an out and out striker to operating in the hole has been pivotal. Combining tireless energy and cunning creative vision, not only is the Atletico forward a goal threat in his own right but his deeper position deters opposing teams from throwing as many players forward, lest they be punished on the counter attack. The fluidity of the formation means that the team can effectively attack and defend as one. Forlan is the fulcrum driving them forward, while strikers Suarez and Cavani often drift wide to find space or create space for each other. This was shown to devastating effect against Mexico, Cavani finding room wide on the right to deliver an inch-perfect cross for Suarez to head in the winner. When the team is on the back foot, Suarez and Cavani slot into midfield to fill the gaps on the flanks, forming an effective wall.
So what can South Korea do to stop Uruguay on Saturday? It could be argued that the team relies too heavily on Forlan, although the emergence of Suarez and Cavani was timely against a Mexico team that had earmarked Forlan as the danger man and set out to stifle him accordingly. If all three are firing on all cylinders this weekend, it could be a rout. Additionally, La Celeste have been somewhat wasteful. The finishing of Suarez and Cavani has been profligate at times, while Lugano and Alvaro Pereira have each missed golden chances in recent games. Such profligacy can come back to haunt teams at a world cup finals. It will also be interesting to see how Tabarez’s men cope with adversity. They are bound to concede sooner or later, and their reaction to going a goal behind, for example, may provide the clearest indication yet of just how far La Celeste can go. A kind draw, an excellent tactical set up and a world class strike force – Uruguay – the smallest nation, by far, to ever win the world cup – may never have a better chance to recapture those glory days.