Uruguay Camp Focus – La Celeste aim to spoil Africa’s party

Football romantics will likely be well behind Ghana in tomorrow night’s world cup quarter final. The Black Stars represent the host continent’s last hope in the competition, and no African team has ever made it beyond the last eight. Uruguay, however, are plotting a fairytale of their own. The smallest nation left in the tournament and with the proud distinction of being the first ever world cup winners, they are aiming to make it a hat trick of successes. The omens augur well for the Uruguayans – their best performances seem to come in tournaments held at the start of a decade. Winners in 1930 and 1950, their last final four finish occurred in 1970, and prior to South Africa, the last time they made it past the group stage came in 1990. Fans of La Celeste might feel that these things come in twenties.

Oscar Tabarez’s men go into the game as favourites, and there has been the suggestion that this mantle does not suit them as well as that of “surprise package”. Having slipped through Group A relatively under the radar, Uruguay were expected to make short work of South Korea in the Round of 16. However, after taking an early lead, they took their foot off the pedal and almost paid the price, a fate they will be desperate to avoid against their African opponents.

Although La Celeste retain most of their well-balanced side, and their world-class firepower in Forlan, Suarez and Cavani should arguably be enough to see off the Ghanaian challenge, several seeds of concern have crept up on them. Tabarez has been forced to make two changes to his preferred line up. While Mauricio Victorino’s replacing Diego Godin is no major drama, given Victorino’s steady displays at centre back when called on thus far, the selection of Alvaro Fernandez in place of Alvaro Pereira is an altogether less certain move. Pereira had been struggling for fitness, having picked up a knock before the South Korea game, and El Maestro has elected not to risk the Porto star. He will be a big loss for La Celeste. He offers a pacy outlet in his ability to get forward in support of Uruguay’s three-pronged attack, in contrast to the team’s other midfielders, Diego Perez and Egidio Arevalo Rios, who are tasked with sitting deep and holding in Tabarez’s 3-4-1-2 formation. He also offers a source of goals, as he displayed with his header in the 3-0 demolition of hosts South Africa in the groups. Pereira however, as a versatile player who can also slot in at left back, also plays an equally important defensive role, covering much ground to get back and help out when the team is under pressure. His replacement, Fernandez, is an attacking midfielder adept at getting forward, but his defensive qualities are in doubt. Fernandez’s selection has led to a minor reshuffle in midfield. While Alvaro Pereira played on the left side of a three man midfield, slightly ahead of the two holding midfielders, Fernandez will occupy a similar position on the right side. The fluidity of Uruguay’s system requires the team to effectively attack and defend as one. If Fernandez is found in dereliction of his defensive duties, Uruguay could be in trouble.

There has also been the suggestion that La Celeste’s heroics in previous rounds have caught up with them, and that fatigue is setting in. Certainly there was a dynamism missing from their narrow win over the Koreans compared to the group stages, with midfield terrier Diego Perez and even the talismanic Forlan not at their best. Perhaps recognising the need to save Forlan’s legs, Tabarez is set to continue to use Edinso Cavani in the hole behind the strikers, as he did in the Round of 16, while deploying Forlan further forward as an out and out striker. This is quite a gamble. Neither forward was as effective in this role reversal, as Forlan’s absence from the attacking midfield enganche role virtually cut off the supply line to Uruguay’s attackers. If fatigue is setting in, there are few teams less forgiving than Ghana, a physical side who play a fast-paced, harrying game. However, El Maestro does have strength in depth available to him. There is surely more to come from Nicolas Lodeiro, who has a point to prove after his sending off against France and who is an ideal candidate for the enganche position. Likewise, Napoli’s Walter Gargano is raring to go if Perez or Arevalo are flagging.

History beckons for Ghana should they prevail, but Tabarez has been talking to his players of destiny. Make it to the last four and anything is possible. Should Uruguay progress to a semi-final match with either Brazil or Holland, they will once again be cast in the role of underdogs – and that is when they are most dangerous.

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