Another round of the CONMEBOL 2018 World Cup qualifiers has come and gone, with Uruguay facing Peru at home with a chance to double down on last week’s great performance against Brazil. Did they do it? Let’s find out!
On Shaky Ground?
Conventional wisdom says that CONMEBOL is the toughest out of all the World Cup qualifier tournaments, even though half the teams end up moving forward. There are no true easy outs in the confederation, the double round robin schedule is grueling, and many of the away games involve high altitude, oppressive heat, or both. The tournament is spread over 2+ years, with long breaks in the action, so maintaining momentum is tough. That’s why Uruguay always seems to underperform in this competition: they’re always at their worst in the first couple of games of a tourney, and in the qualifiers it feels like every game is the start of a new fixture. CONMEBOL rewards teams that can take games one at a time and concentrate on winning as many points in those games as possible, and that just hasn’t been the Celestes.
The 2018 qualifiers have been different, however: rather than dig themselves into an early hole with sub par performances in winnable games, the Celestes have been near the top of the standings all tournament long. This, however, was the first game that could truly be classified as an easy 3 points, so El Bolso was holding his breath to see what the team would do. This was the exact type of game that always seemed to trip Uruguay up in the past. And let’s not forget that the Celestes were still playing without 4 of their top 5 defenders (hey at least they got Maxi Pereira back from suspension). With new FIFA President Gianni Infantino, symbol of a new era of soccer governance, in the stands, Uruguay ran onto the Centenario pitch looking to change some history of its own.
Always Be Closing
The game started with Uruguay pressing forward but in a disorganized way. There were early chances for the Celestes, like a crisp header by Matías Vecino, or another by Álvaro “Palito” Pereira that was intercepted by a Peruvian defender and hit the crossbar, but the closest the game came to a goal in the first half was a breakdown by the Celeste defense that left Paolo Guerrero all alone in front of Fernando Muslera; the keeper pulled off an amazing save on the Peruvian’s point-blank shot. 45 Minutes in, it was a story Uruguay fans are all too familiar with: the Celestes were the better team in a game they had to have, but were unable to make it count on the scoreboard.
For the second half, coach Óscar Tabárez left Vecino on the bench and put in Cristian “The Onion” Rodríguez. Fan favorite Rodríguez put in usual all-out effort and even had a great chance at the start of the half after a great assist from Sebastián Coates, but it looked to be the wrong move, as Vecino had been the closest Uruguay had to an on-field strategist, something no one has ever said about Cebolla. It didn’t really matter, though, because 8 minutes in Coates hustled out a steal in the Peruvian midfield. Cebolla picked up the loose ball and sent it to Luis Suárez. TBGDPITWW one-timed a ridiculous blind pass to Edinson Cavani at the top of the box, and the Paris St. Germain striker smacked the ball past the goalie as the stadium let out a deafening roar. Uruguay led 1-0.
They almost made it 2-0 son after: TBGDPITWW stole the ball after a Peruvian defender left a pass short deep in his own end of the field, and sent a pass forward for Carlos “El Pato” Sánchez. One on one with the goalie, the Duck lost his nerve and tried to send the ball back into the middle of the box, but TBGDPITWW was surrounded by 3 defenders. Sánchez did collect the rebound off the interception, but the ensuing shot flew 10 feet over the crossbar. Not el Pato’s best moment. Maybe he was confused by the fact that Peru’s jersey looks exactly like his club team River Plate’s? In any case, Cavani’s strike held up as the difference in a huge 1-0 Uruguay win.
Top of the World, Ma!
One third of the tournament is in the books, fans, and where do we stand? Well, there’s good news and not so good news. The good news is that Uruguay, thanks to Colombia’s 3-1 win over Ecuador, is now atop the standings! That’s right, the team that always seems to do its worst work in World Cup qualifiers is leading the field with 13 points (4 wins, a tie, and just a single loss). More importantly, they have won all 3 of their home games and have not even conceded a goal at the Centenario. Believe me, this is not what Celeste fans are used to. If you think history will hold up and a team will need 25-27 points to clinch an outright spot in the Cup, then all Uruguay needs to do is geta point per game in their last 12 matches (6 of which are at home) and they’re in. That’s pretty good if you ask me.
The not so great news is that the table is pretty tight at the top; even though the Celestes are in first place, they’re only 3 points clear of an intercontinental playoff spot, and 4 points above 6th place, which means staying home and watching the tournament on TV. Ecuador is tied with Uruguay (although in 2nd place because of goal differential); Argentina is now only 2 points off the pace, and Chile and Colombia share 4th place with 10 points. Paraguay and Brazil are one point behind them, and that’s only because the latter managed to score an added time goal to win back a tie in their visit to the former. All it takes is a rough week and the Celestes could find themselves on the outside looking in again. Coincidentally, their next two games (which are not until late August) include a trip to Argentina and a home match against the Paraguayans. El Bolso is very happy about how things have gone so far, but he could be singing a different tune in a few months.
I’m gonna end on a positive note though: let’s take a step back and look at Edinson Cavani’s huge week. The forward always seems to receive far less credit than he deserves: many Celeste fans think of him as a player that disappears in the clutch despite all evidence to the contrary, and his time at PSG, while wildly successful, has brought allegations of locker room issues and attitude problems. Through it all, Cavani continues to produce at the highest levels of soccer: he is now in 4th place on the all-time Celeste goal scoring list (just 1 goal behind Héctor Scarone for 3rd place). This week he was unstoppable, scoring key goals in both games and running his little heart out for 180 minutes. El Matador was the biggest reason Uruguay managed 4 out of 6 points, and good for him. I’m not saying Jobu and El Bolso will stop their endless grumbling about #21, but we’ll probably feel slightly more guilty about picking on him. And isn’t that why players put in all that hard work?
That’s all for me, fans. See you next time!
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