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[dropcap]H[/dropcap]ello fans! It’s El Bolso once again with all the latest on Uruguayan soccer. The final round of the U20 South American Championships kicked off this week with Uruguay looking to make a splash, so let’s get down to business!

 

The Uruguayan Candidate

 

Rodrigo Amaral. Strengths: great dribbler in traffic, deadly left foot shot. Must improve: barber. (Tenfield)
Rodrigo Amaral. Strengths: great dribbler in traffic, deadly left foot shot. Must improve: barber. (Tenfield)

It’s put up or shut up time at the CONMEBOL U20 championships, folks. The final round is underway, and the Lil’ Celestes are hoping for tickets to the FIFA Youth World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, and maybe – dare I say it – a trophy. First up was a Monday night rematch against Brazil. Uruguay was not as sharp as they looked in their 2-0 first round win against the scratch, and ultimately it cost them points. Brazil once again looked to intimidate its opponent with physicality, but this time not even the famously lenient CONMEBOL refs could look the other way. The Brazilians racked up 5 yellow cards (two of them to Walace, adding up to a 90th minute red card that should have come much, much earlier), but succeeded in keeping the Uruguayans out of the goal. Here’s the game summary. In the remaining games, Argentina beat Peru 2-0 (at least the Peruvians managed to avoid scoring on their own goal), and Colombia and Paraguay played a scoreless tie.

 

The Lil’ Celestes badly needed a win on Thursday against Peru, and they went out and got it. Uruguay thoroughly outplayed their opponents, who were lucky to escape the game with only a 3-1 loss. Franco Acosta opened the scoring in the 28th minute after a bad defensive clearing and a nifty assist from Rodrigo Amaral. The 17 year old Nacional star’s play has won him a spot in the starting eleven after beginning the tournament on the bench, and his alert pass was not wasted by Acosta, Uruguay’s top scorer in the tournament (check out the dancing skills on the celebration, too!). In the 56th minute, it was time for some strong finishing from Nacional’s other player on this team, Gastón Pereiro after a sweet play down the right wing and a perfect setup from, of course, Amaral. After Peru got back within a goal (an atypical weak reaction from the Uruguayan keeper, Peñarol’s Gastón Guruceaga, who has been one of the team’s best players so far), Mauro Arambarry sealed the win with 12 minutes left with a soft touch from the left side of the box after a great in-traffic pass from Pereiro. With Brazil beating Paraguay 2-0 and Argentina and Colombia playing to a scoreless tie, the three traditional South American powers found themselves sharing the group lead with 4 points apiece.

 

On Sunday, round 3 began with Colombia beating Peru 3-1 to temporarily jump ahead of the pack. That didn’t last long, though, as Argentina scored twice in the last 5 minutes of their game to beat Brazil 2-0. Uruguay needed to beat Paraguay to keep avoid falling behind, and that they did. Despite surrendering control of the game for long stretches, the Lil’ Celestes were solid on defense (with Guruceaga saving their bacon on more than one occasion) and opportunistic up front, winning the game 2-0 and proving once and for all they are the guay-est team around. Headers from Acosta in the 23rd and Pereiro in the 39th (both plays prominently featuring Amaral) put Uruguay in great shape entering the tournament’s final week.

 

Next up for Uruguay is a rematch against Colombia on Wednesday, and then a showdown against Argentina on Saturday. The group standings show Uruguay and Argentina up front with 7 points (both with 5 goals for and 1 against), Colombia with 5, Brazil with 4, Paraguay with 1, and Peru having obtained no points at all (not a sausage, as Monty Python would say). Uruguay and Argentina have pretty much sealed World Cup berths, and Colombia and Brazil are looking like pretty good bets for the other 2 spots; If Uruguay manages to beat a tough Colombia team on Wednesday, they will probably be playing for both the title and a direct Olympic berth against the Argentinians.

 

One final note: Uruguay will be without Mauricio Lemos for the rest of the tournament.; the young defender was hospitalized late last week for an emergency appendectomy. Worry not: Lemos came through the surgery well and is already back on Twitter celebrating his team’s victory against Paraguay and claiming to be ready to get back on the field. Uruguay asked CONMEBOL for permission to take the field with a sign supporting their teammate but the request was denied, because CONMEBOL is the true home of Satan. Here’s hoping Lemos is back on the practice field soon.

 

Debutantes

 

Club Deportivo Palestino 's current home kit. (RKPR Sports)
Club Deportivo Palestino ‘s current home kit. (RKPR Sports)

Well, folks, the time has come for Nacional’s debut in the Libertadores Cup. The team is already in Chile, preparing for a Thursday night match against Palestino, which will be followed by a closed-door match at the Parque Central on February 12th (because of the shenanigans against Newell’s in last year’s tournament). Palestino has looked pretty good of late; they’re in 8th place after 4 rounds in the Chilean First division, but they’ve won their last two games after starting off with two defeats. Nacional, meanwhile, has been passing the time playing random friendlies against middling foreign clubs as well as the dregs of the Uruguayan League, because the the local soccer association makes a Marx Brothers movie scene look organized by comparison. No, the Clausura has not started yet , and won’t for another two weeks. Sheesh! Anyway, Nacional must come out on top in the home and away playoff to make it into the group stage (nice) and collect $2 million in prize money (nicer). So this is a big deal. Let’s hope I have good news next week!

 

So, as we did during last year’s Libertadores, let’s learn a little about Nacional’s rival. Club Deportivo Palestino hails from the capital city of Santiago, and plays at the Estadio Municipal de la Cisterna (capacity: 12,000). Cisterna means “water tank,” so should I be worried that Álvaro Gutiérrez’s only official loss as Nacional coach came to El Tanque, which is also named after a nearby water tower? No. Let’s just move on. Palestino was founded in 1920 by, as the name suggests, Palestinian immigrants (Chile has a large and very active Palestinian community, numbering about 500,000). The Club won First division titles in 1955 and 1978, but has pretty much been a bottom-half-of-the-table team since. The team made headlines in January of last year when they were fined a few hundred dollars for wearing a jersey that depicted the original map of Palestine (pre-State of Israel), but other than that there hasn’t much to write about. Still, this is a dangerous team that clinched their berth by beating Santiago Wanderers 9-2 on aggregate, so we know they can put the ball in the net. Their biggest scoring threat right now is Diego Cháves, a Uruguayan striker who spent 6 months at Nacional back in 2010. Cháves started out playing for Montevideo Wanderers and has since bounced around the continent, spending some time in Mexico and Chile as well as playing 33 games for the Chicago Fire in 2011.

 

Nacional must come out on top in the home and away playoff to make it into the group stage (nice) and collect $2 million in prize money (nicer). So this is a big deal. Let’s hope I have good news next week!

 

Here and There

 

Nacional's U15 squad, 2015 Mundialito Valdivia champions. (Austral Valdivia)
Nacional’s U15 squad, 2015 Mundialito Valdivia champions. (Austral Valdivia)

Cristhian Stuani followed up last week’s brilliant performance, opening the scoring in Espanyol’s league game against Sevilla. Unfortunately, his team could not hold on and lost 3-2.

 

Portuguese league leader Benfica beat Boavista 3-0 this weekend; Celeste defender Maxi Pereira set up the first goal and scored the second one for Benfica.

 

In what I hope is a good omen for the weeks ahead, Nacional’s 6th Division (under-15) team, coached by 1980 Libertadores cup hero Dardo Pérez, won the 26th edition of the Mundialito Valdivia, a prestigious youth soccer tournament that takes place in that Chilean city. The young Tricolores beat Chilean side Huachipato 2-0 in the final to bring home the trophy. Congratulations, pibes!

 

One last entry, from the “I learned something new this week” department: Uruguay hosted the 1999 U17 South American Championships, won by Brazil. That was the first time ever (in 82 years) the Uruguay failed to win an official international tournament it hosted, in any age group. Unfortunately, they would make it two in a row in 2003 when Argentina took home the gold in the U20 tournament. Here’s hoping third time’s the charm for the young Celestes.

 

That’s all for this week, fans. I’ll be back next week to talk about the Lil’ Celestes’ final two games, as well as Nacional’s trip across the Andes. Let’s hope no one gets eaten!

El Bolso

About El Bolso

El Bolso is Uruguay’s foremost soccer-fan-in-exile, a true authority on the Celeste and its favored son, the Club Nacional de Football. He believes in precision passing, tireless marking, and strong finishing, and is not above the occasional slide tackle from behind when the situation calls for it.

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