Uruguay look to spring a surprise

Luis Suarez will be the key for Uruguay.

A smooth qualifying campaign spearheaded by their strikers and marked by the emergence of youth has given former champions Uruguay reasons to be optimistic about their chances at the World Cup in Russia next month.

Uruguay, winners of the inaugural World Cup in 1930 and again in 1950, won nine and drew four of their 18 games in the South American qualifying competition to finish second among 10 teams, ahead of Argentina and behind five-times world champions Brazil.

Progress to the finals was in stark contrast to previous qualifying campaigns when Uruguay scraped through to the finals via intercontinental play-offs in 2002, 2010 and 2014 after missing out altogether in 2006.

Up against hosts Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in Group A at this year's World Cup, Uruguay will consider themselves firm favourites to advance to the round of 16, a feat they have always managed under coach Oscar Tabarez.

They could, however, face a potentially difficult test against Spain or Portugal in the first knockout stage.

One more reason for Uruguay to feel upbeat heading to Russia was their strong showing in front of goal during qualifying. 'La Celeste' scored 32 goals, a tally bettered only by Brazil who netted 41.

Edinson Cavani scored 10 times, twice as many as fellow striker Luis Suarez, while the team's overall attacking threat was emphasised by players chipping in with goals from all over the pitch.

Uruguay also successfully blooded a number of energetic young midfielders, who added plenty of running power and creativity to the attack.

Midfielders Federico Valverde (19), Nahitan Nandez (22) and Rodrigo Bentancur (20) have added vigour and provided additional options for the coach as Uruguay look to shed their image as a deep-defending, counter-attacking side.

With one of world football's most fearsome attacking partnerships in Suarez and Cavani as well as a wily coach in Tabarez who can get the best out of the players, Uruguay have the potential to be difficult opponents to the best of teams.

"Uruguay are an awkward side and no one likes to play against us, which is a lovely feeling," former skipper Diego Forlan said recently.

"We're a small country and if you look at it that way, we're at a disadvantage, though I know that most of the players who know or have come up against Uruguayans prefer to avoid us."

Redemption 

Suarez will also be looking for a measure of redemption after ending the previous two editions of the tournament in disgrace.

Suarez was expelled from the 2014 World Cup after inexplicably sinking his teeth into the shoulder of Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini during a group match. He was subsequently slapped with a nine-match ban from playing for Uruguay and a four-month ban from football.

In 2010, a deliberate goalline handball by the striker had denied opponents Ghana a place in the semifinals of the tournament in South Africa.

Suarez has since managed to avoid controversy on the scale that had seriously dented his reputation. Yet with several blots on his career, including accusations of racial abuse and diving, one of his targets will be to keep his volatile alter ego in check.

He will also hope that his reputation as a sharp-eyed goalscorer can dominate the headlines as Uruguay look to improve on their fourth-placed finish in 2010.

Suarez's appetite for goals has shown no signs of diminishing and the 31-year-old has netted more than 150 for Barcelona in all competitions since joining the Spanish side from Liverpool four years ago.

Tenacious and technically gifted, Suarez is equally effective with his back to goal as he is running at defenders. With a strong will to win, Suarez is the player Tabarez will look to when his side needs inspiration.

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Uruguay look to spring a surprise

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