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Hello fans! It’s El Bolso once again with an update on Uruguayan soccer. Nacional fans are still celebrating last weekend’s derby win, but the team had to pull it together for the potential title clincher this past weekend, plus the national team was in action for a FIFA weekend. Let’s get to the action!

 

I’ve Paid My Dues Time After Time

 

Nacional players and their families celebrate a well-deserved Apertura championship. (Conmebol)
Nacional players and their families celebrate a well-deserved Apertura championship. (Conmebol)

The Tricolores may have humiliated their biggest rival and distanced themselves from any team not named Racing Club, but after last week they still were not Apertura champions. To do that they would have to match Racing’s result this past Sunday while facing Cerro, which is immersed in a tense relegation fight at the moment. El Bolso knew this game would not be easy; I just hoped Nacional’s talent would find a way to win out. While it would take a historic collapse to lose out on the Apertura, it is imperative that the Tricolores maintain as big an advantage as possible in the overall table (Apertura + Clausura). The way the Uruguayan tournament works, the winners of the two smaller competitions face off in a single game for a spot in the final against the overall table winner, so being that overall points leader is a huge deal. Plus, since Nacional will be competing in the Libertadores Cup, it’s expected that their performance in the Clausura will suffer a bit. So, the bigger the cushion they build in these last three games, the better.

 

So the Tricolores stepped onto the field at their beloved Parque Central, in front of a full house, looking to get the three points and put a bow on a spectacular season. Racing, playing at the same time, refused to make it easy on the good guys, coming from behind to steal a 3-2 win against Fénix on (of course) a last minute goal. The Cerveceros have had amazing season; their 29 points with two games to go would put them within striking distance of several past Apertura champions. Their problem is that they were going up against what may be the most dominant side in the history of the opening tournament, one that won 11 of its first 12 games and was looking to continue that streak on this day.

 

As has been the case throughout this tournament, Nacional was clearly the better team, piling up chances against a desperate Cerro defense and largely keeping the ball away from keeper Gustavo Munúa. Tournament top scorer Iván Alonso was on as usual, but he was robbed on three clear chances, once by the crossbar near the end of the first half, and twice by Cerro’s goalie on magnificent headers. El Clásico hero Alvaro Recoba, a surprise starter in this one, also came close on a header of his very own (not a typical look for El Chino), but the post denied him as well. In the end, it would be former jailbird turned midfield powerhouse Diego Arismendi who would provide the winning margin. Halfway through the first half Nacional was given a free kick right around the same spot of Recoba’s winning strike from the previous week. El Chino stepped up to take it, of course, but he had an ace up his sleeve this time around: channeling Sebastián “El Loco” Abreu, El Chino ran up to the ball as if he meant to take a shot on goal but instead chipped it to Alonso inside the penalty box. The striker, facing away from the goal, used his chest to lower the all to an oncoming Arismendi, who struck a low shot that sneaked in next to the goalie’s right post. Here, look at it; isn’t it pretty? Nacional could easily have scored a few more, and Cerro managed to get a couple of shots on goal, but in the end Arismendi’s strike was the difference as Nacional celebrated their 11th Torneo Apertura (pretty impressive considering it has only been played 21 times). Here’s a link to the game highlights.

 

I’ve Taken My Bows and My Curtain Calls

 

Guillermo de los Santos holding his daughter during Sunday's celebration. (Decano.com)
Guillermo de los Santos holding his daughter during Sunday’s celebration. (Decano.com)

 

What can I say about this team that I haven’t already said? I’ll weigh in on their historic run once the tournament is actually over.  As of right now, they have won 36 of 39 possible points. Their offense is tied with Racing’s for the most goals scored (29) and their defense is by far the best in the league (6 goals allowed overall, 1 in the last 9 games). That’s right, they score almost 5 goals for each one they give up. That’s not bad for a team that lost half of its starting midfield to house arrest before the tournament even began, and had to replace three quarters of their defense by week 4 because of injuries and poor play. If you want to see the domination up close, here’s a link to highlights for all 13 games (sorry about the clunky presentation). And here’s a link to the corresponding match reports.

 

Still, if you ask me how I can best explain what this team is all about, I’m not going to show you videos or stats. I’m going to tell you two stories. The first one is about Recoba. He came back to Nacional three years ago to basically play for free, and promptly scored every key goal during a championship-winning campaign. He then spent two seasons as an occasional sub (mostly due to age),  although he still found the time to score three olympic goals. This season his playing time has been limited again, but he managed to come up big on a couple of occasions. After his heroics against Peñarol, club president Eduardo Ache mentioned that he had started a collection to put a statue of Recoba at the Parque Central (hey, at least he’s not throwing out anti-semitic slurs on live radio like some other presidents). What was El Chino’s reaction? The man who was once the highest paid player on the planet laughed, then said he didn’t think it made sense. He said a photo in the club’s trophy room would be enough for him, adding that if they built a statue for Recoba, what would they need to do for the players that won all  those Libertadores and Intercontinental Cups? Once again, El Chino showed that, since his return, he has a firm grasp on the reality of his own accomplishments and how they stack up against history. I feel that one of this team’s greatest strengths is that they’ve have had their eye on the ball since day one, and they’ve always had a clear idea of who they are, what they can do and what they need to do to get where they want to be.

 

One of Nacional’s historical symbols is a white handkerchief, and you may want to get one out for this next story. In previous columns I’ve mentioned Guillermo de los Santos has been having this season. Well, with 15 minutes to go and Nacional clinging to a one goal lead, coach Alvaro Gutiérrez sent de los Santos into a game for the first time since week 3. Strategically, it made sense, as it gave Nacional one more defender to help safeguard the lead. In reality, though, you’re sending in a player that has been out of commission for a couple of months and was playing horribly before being benched (of course we know now why that was). In fact, in his first play, Guille almost cost Nacional the title when he collided with a Cerro attacker inside Nacional’s penalty box, but the referee ruled that the contact had been incidental. Still, by putting de los Santos on the field, Gutiérrez sent a powerful message: this Nacional is a team in the best sense of the word, and if you are a part of that team, you will be trusted to go out there and do your job no matter the situation. You will be given the chance to prove yourself, as happened with Guille and so many other players throughout the season. The end result is a Nacional that suffered injuries, incarcerations and the usual bad streaks that players go through, and there was always someone ready to take over a  position and help move the team forward. Besides, the sight of de los Santos roaming the field after the final whistle, clutching his little daughter to his chest and getting hugs and congratulations from teammates and team executives, may just be my favorite memory from this Apertura. Fuerza Guille!

 

Two leftover tidbits about the derby: first, the referee’s final report credited Alonso with the game tying goal rather than Sebastián Fernández, even though Alonso didn’t come close to touching the ball. Actually, the official report credited Alonso with the winning goal, and Recoba with the equalizer. I guess it’s time to start checking referee dressing rooms for booze. Second, popular British soccer magazine FourFourTwo has come out with a ranking of the top  ten derbys in the world, and Nacional-Peñarol came in at number 3. Take that, Man U!

 

We Are the Champions My Friends

 

Tabárez's commitment to renovating the national team continued this week when Carlos Sánchez, who has been a pillar for Argentina's River Plate for several years now, was called up  and made his debut with La Celeste. (InfoBae)
Tabárez’s commitment to renovating the national team continued this week when Carlos Sánchez, who has been a pillar for Argentina’s River Plate for several years now, was called up and made his debut with La Celeste. (InfoBae)

So another FIFA international weekend was upon us, and Uruguay had a chance to settle some scores. On Friday, Costa Rica came to Montevideo as the Celestes looked to avenge last June’s 3-1 World Cup defeat to Los Ticos. The game was exciting from beginning to end, ending up in a 3-3 tie. Costa Rica prevailed in penalty kicks to take home the Copa ANTEL (donated by the national telephony concern), but what mattered was how the team looked on the field. Costa Rica went ahead in the first half, and again in the 51st minute, immediately following a sweet Luis Suárez equalizer. Edinson Cavani could have tied it again off a tremendous Suárez feed (the all time Uruguayan scoring leader lost half his shirt to an overzealous defender and still managed to create an easy chance for his line mate), but he finished poorly. Still, headers by José Giménez and yes, Cavani put Uruguay in position to win the game before poor defensive play allowed the Ticos a last minute goal. Coach Oscar Tabárez continued to introduce new faces like River Plate attacker Carlos Sánchez, the ninth player to make his debut with La Celeste since the World Cup (for comparison, only eight did so in the four years leading up to that tournament). This is good; however, while tying this Costa Rican team is no shame, the team looked shaky on the defensive end, and the attack looked a little too dependent on Suárez’s ability.

 

On Tuesday, Uruguay travelled to Chile to play the next hosts of the Copa America. With Suárez returning to Barcelona, this was a good opportunity for the team to improve on their showing against Costa Rica and prove that they’re more than a one man outfit. It was also a chance to remind the rest of South America of everything La Celeste has accomplished in recent years. CONMEBOL snubbed Uruguay when it came time to set up the Copa America draw, relegating the defending champions to a second seed behind Brazil, Argentina, and the hosts. They also forgot to include Uruguay in the tournament promotional materials, which include photos of players from the aforementioned countries as well as Colombia. Hey, Conmebol, remember us, the EFFING DEFENDING CHAMPIONS? Anyway, with a chance to show they hadn’t defected to CONCACAF or something, Uruguay did not play its best game, allowing the Chileans control of the ball for most of the game, but managed to grab a 2-1 comeback win nonetheless. Behind since the 28th minute on an Alexis Sánchez header (would it be too much to ask that you put a defender on Arsenal’s starting striker inside the penalty box?), La Celeste weathered the Chilean storm before tying the game on another header, this one by Bordeaux up-and-coming star Diego Rolán at the stroke of halftime. The second half started with more Chile domination, but evened out as the minutes passed. There was an entertaining three minute stretch that featured a great play by Gastón Ramírez that led to some awful finishing by Abel Hernández and Jonathan Rodríguez, followed by a Chile goal that was correctly disallowed on an offside call, followed by an amazing Rolán run through the Chilean defense that led to a Cavani bicycle kick goal that was also called back because of offside (also a good decision by the ref). Eventually Uruguay would take the lead for good with ten minutes left when Álvaro “Tata” González, who had come into the game a minute earlier, finished off yet another Rolán play. Uruguay did not show its best on this night, but they still came out on top, showing that they will not be an easy opponent come next June, even without you-know-who. The best part was Rolán’s performance: he was incisive, creative, and relentless, especially in the second half, and showed that he’s ready to earn a place in the main squad.

 

And that’s all for this week, friends. As always, I leave you with the dulcet tones of Pasión Tricolor:

 

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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