Before getting into the nuances of the challenge that lies ahead of this Uruguay side, there is a realization of infinite importance to football fans that needs to be stated:
Once the Group D games have concluded, one of Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard and Diego Forlan would have played his last World Cup game.
So while you might be cheering for one of Uruguay, Costa Rica, England and Italy as they attempt to gnaw their way out of this intimidating group, make sure you take a moment to enjoy these the individual brilliance of these legends of the game, as it may turn out to be the last time you see them on this stage.
Oscar Tabarez’s Uruguay
This Uruguayan side is very much manager Oscar Tabarez’s team. El Maestro (“The Teacher”) has managed the side since 2006, and loves to stick to a steady group of players. But that in no way means that his sides are predictable. Tabarez is well known for switching up his tactics and formations: not just FOR different games, but even DURING said games.
The grim reality of the Uruguayan football team is that barring their forward line, the rest of the squad is decidedly average. And the uncertainty surrounding Luis Suarez’s availability (due to injury) in the group stages has put additional question-marks around the team’s fate. It is an uphill battle for Tabarez’s men, but no one is foolish enough to write them off yet.
Uruguay’s 23-man squad for the World Cup finals:
Goalkeepers: Fernando Muslera (Galatasaray), Martin Silva (Vasco da Gama), Rodrigo Munoz (Libertad).
Defenders: Maximiliano Pereira (Benfica), Diego Lugano (West Bromwich Albion), Diego Godin, Jose Maria Gimenez (both Atletico Madrid), Sebastian Coates (Liverpool), Martin Caceres (Juventus), Jorge Fucile (Porto).
Midfielders: Alvaro Gonzalez (Lazio), Alvaro Pereira (Sao Paulo), Walter Gargano (Parma), Egidio Arevalo Rios (Morelia), Diego Perez (Bologna), Cristian Rodriguez (Atletico Madrid), Gaston Ramirez (Southampton), Nicolas Lodeiro (Botafogo).
Forwards: Luis Suarez (Liverpool), Edinson Cavani (Paris St-Germain), Abel Hernandez (Palermo), Diego Forlan (Cerezo Osaka), Christian Stuani (Espanyol).
The team’s first strength is their forward line. Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan are forwards most teams will kill to have. Suarez is the highest goal scorer of the Premier League this season, Cavani has scored 25 goals or more in the last 4 seasons (he scored 38 in 2012-13) and Forlan is the winner of the Golden Ball in the World Cup 2010 (and has scored 8 goals in 16 outings for Japanese club Cerezo Osaka).
The team’s other greatest asset is Oscar Tabarez’s tactical acumen. Some managers can be stubborn about sticking to their favored formations. Like Roy Hodgson, who tends to cling to a 4-4-2/ 4-4-1-1 much the same way a Titanic survivor clings to a piece of floating wood. Tabarez is the exact opposite. He will vary his formations and tactics based on the opposition and the players at his disposal. He switches between a 4-man backline, a 3-man backline and a 5-man backline. He drills his defence, with Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin at the heart of it, to be organized and compact. His players will willingly press and hassle the opposition. His tactical brilliance will be key in making this mediocre squad put up a strong push for the big prize.
The absence of a reliable Number 10 or attacking playmaker in the side means that he typically plays atleast two strikers out of Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan up front. The rest of the line-up has two jobs: be defensively solid and get the ball to the forwards.
Interestingly, wide-man Christian Rodriguez has only managed 1 goal and 1 assist in 20 appearances (though 18 of those were as a substitute) for Atletico Madrid, whereas his club and international teammate Godin (a center-half) has 4 goals and an assist to his name in his 34 appearances for the La Liga Champions. It says a lot about Uruguay’s weak midfield that Rodriguez is nearly assured a starting spot in the Uruguayan side.
Uruguay will first face off against Costa Rica, in what is really the ideal opening game as far as Uruguay are concerned. Costa Rica are currently ranked 34 in the FIFA World Rankings, below the likes of Honduras, Slovenia and Romania. With striker Alvaro Saborio ruled out of the tournament, their best hope is a 21 year old Arsenal loanee plying his trade in the Greek Super League: Joel Campbell. Compare that to the kind of attacking talent Uruguay have at their disposal, and Costa Rica really shouldn’t be too massive a challenge.
The second hurdle in Uruguay’s way are England, the perpetual underachievers on the grandest stages. Despite being looked upon as underdogs for once, the team is hardly a push over. With a core of Liverpool players, led by captain Steven Gerrard, England will be hoping the likes of Adam Lallana, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling can shine on the international stage the way they have in the Premier League. But despite what Paul Scholes might be hoping, England are unlikely to play a Liverpool-style game. Why? Because the Brazilian climate is far from conducive to such a physically exhausting style of play. So the English squad’s greatest asset – their knack for relentless running – might not be something they would be able to leverage in this environment. Something Tabarez will surely look to capitalize on.
Finally, there’s Italy. The 2006 World Cup champions are always among the favorites to walk away with the prize. At the heart of the team is veteran string-puller Andrea Pirlo. As influential as ever, and now sporting a most majestic beard, the midfielder will take up the same deep lying midfielder position he takes up for Juventus. Except, he won’t have the kind of protection that Artura Vidal and Paul Pogba provide him in Turin. Sure, Daniele De Rossi is a monster of a defensive midfielder, but he doesn’t have the kind of engine the Juve pairing does. In the absence of sufficient cover, Italy are susceptible to turnovers if Pirlo is left exposed. And this is a similar strategy to the one Tabarez used to in the Copa America 2011 final against Paraguay, where he had Arevalo pressing Nestor Ortigoza, who was meant to play a role similar to Pirlo’s for Paraguay. Ortigoza, being a natural playmaker rather than a defensive midfielder, was closed down rapidly whenever in possession, and eventually made a mistake that led to the second goal.
Italy’s Cesare Prandelli is as gifted a tactician as Tabarez. He’s as keen a student of the game, and once stated “I have a dream of winning the World Cup by using seven different formations in seven matches”. So effectively, Tabarez will be facing a manager who is as tactically astute as him, but has a better squad. Not the ideal situation to be in.
With England, the threat is of a different form. They are a side in transition, with a manager whose career is hardly covered in silver and glory. But the one thing that England do have plenty of is individual talent. Daniel Sturridge and Wayne Rooney have scored 21 and 17 goals in the Premier League, respectively. Steven Gerrard has provided 13 assists (highest in the League), while Wayne Rooney and Rickie Lambert have each provided 10. This is not a squad where a majority of the players are at their peak, but there is no denying the sheer talent on display. Many a World Cup draw have been settled by a piece of solo magic, and England certainly have names on the team sheet that can pull of a moment of madness.
Luis Suarez – The Key Piece of The Puzzle
Luis Suarez will be Tabarez’s greatest weapon for more than one reason. Firstly, and the most obvious reason, is the fact that Suarez has scored 31 goals for Liverpool this season. Secondly, under Brendon Rodgers, Suarez has played in a multitude of roles in varying formations. Like Tabarez, Rodgers has shown a fondness for switching tactics; he’s alternated between a 4-3-3, a 3-4-1-2 and a 4-4-2 diamond. Luis Suarez has accordingly adapted his game each time around, and has played through the center and in wider roles as well. So, if Tabarez plans to spring a surprise tactic on an opponent, he knows Suarez has the ability to adapt to whatever attacking role he gives him.
So Suarez’s availability in the tournament will have a huge say in how far Uruguay progress in the World Cup 2014.