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Uruguay not taking easy way out of group of death

IN some respects, Uruguay have become victims of their own success.

Many of those players who impressed for Uruguay during the last World Cup are in Brazil. Picture: EPA
Many of those players who impressed for Uruguay during the last World Cup are in Brazil. Picture: EPA

The South Americans were undoubtedly one of the triumphs of the last World Cup finals in South Africa, a country of just 3.3m somehow making it all the way to the semi-finals.

There was some chicanery along the way - who could forget Luis Suarez's deliberate handball against Ghana in the final minute of extra time in the quarter-final, the subsequent missed penalty, and Uruguay's progression via the shoot-out? - but, that aside, there was plenty to admire in the way that Diego Forlan, Edinson Cavani, and, yes, Suarez cut a swathe through the opposition before being deposed by the Dutch at the last-four stage.

It was hardly uncharted territory for Uruguay, twice winners of the competition in 1930 and 1950 and fourth-placed finishers in 1954 and 1970, but in the modern era it seemed quite the achievement. It was all the more impressive given they had not qualified for three of the four previous tournaments and failed to win a match in Japan and Korea in 2002, exiting at the group stage.

Now, though, back in Brazil, the scene of their last World Cup triumph 64 years ago, there is an expectation on them to replicate that success. But is another run to the semi-finals realistic? Or should a team from such a tiny landmass be happy just to be there while keeping their fingers crossed to see how far they can go?

The good news for those who believe Uruguay should dare to dream big once more is that most of the established names from 2010 are back for more, many with enhanced reputations.

Suarez, an Ajax player four years ago, has just come off the back of an outstanding personal season with Liverpool. His capacity for the occasional act of nonsense remains undiminished but when focused and fit there are few better strikers in the world. Without him, Uruguay looked a team bereft of a focal point in their opening group game against Costa Rica, the striker sitting unused on the bench as his team slumped to a 3-1 loss.

Oscar Tabarez, Uruguay's head coach since 2006, insisted Suarez's knee - operated on just a month ago - was now completely healed, although the fact he did not put the Liverpool man on when his team desperately needed a spark suggested either he or the player are still not 100% convinced.

Suarez is the undoubted star of the Uruguayan show although there is a stellar supporting cast too. Like his team-mate, Cavani has moved on to bigger things in the subsequent four years, leaving Palermo for Napoli and then, last summer, signing for Paris Saint-Germain with whom he won a league and League Cup double in his first season. Like Suarez, he is now 27 years old and arguably entering the peak years of his career. He continued his recent impressive form by opening the scoring against Costa Rica, although that turned out to be a consolation only following his team's second-half collapse.

The third part of this Uruguayan striking triumvirate is Diego Forlan. Unlike the other two, his is a star on the wane, 2010's Golden Ball winner now 35 years old and playing out his days with Cerezo Osaka in Japan. He played the first hour of the defeat by Costa Rica and may find his place under threat should Suarez be deemed fit enough to start against England this evening.

Defensively Uruguay look a robust unit, too. Despite the absence of Diego Lugano and Maxi Pereira tonight - through injury and suspension, respectively - their rearguard still includes Diego Godin, who has been a key figure in Atletico Madrid's La Liga success, while Martin Caceres has just won a third successive Scudetto with Juventus.

There is talent in the midfield, too, with the likes of Atletico's Cristian Rodriguez, Walter Gargano of Parma and Southampton's Gaston Ramirez. As a collective, they look strong and with plenty of depth.

Their form since South Africa, though, has been up and down to say the least. They won the Copa America in Argentina in 2011, but then lost to Spain, Brazil and Italy, on penalties, in last summer's Confederations Cup, their only victories coming against Nigeria and minnows Tahiti.

Their route to qualifying for these World Cup finals was not straightforward, either. They won just seven of their 16 ties to finish fifth in the table behind Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Ecuador meaning that, hypothetically, had Brazil not qualified automatically as hosts, Uruguay would have failed to make it. Instead their reward was an inter-continental play-off against Jordan which they won comfortably.

Already, though, they are up against it if they are to make it out the group this time. With one defeat already to their name, another tonight to an England team also looking to pick up their first points of the tournament will likely signal the end of Uruguay's involvement. And even should they manage a draw or better there is still the small matter of a meeting with Italy in the final group game.

There is every chance Uruguay could yet go on to make another big splash in this World Cup. But this time they are going to have to do it the hard way.

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