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Hello fans! El bolso here with another 2018 World Cup Qualifiers report. The third and fourth rounds of the CONMEBOL tournament took place over the last few days, and Uruguay is stll looking pretty good. Let’s see what happened!


All Good Things Come to an End


Uruguay lost the game, but may have regained a scorer as Cavani got back on track. (La Hora Ecuador)
Uruguay lost the game, but may have regained a scorer as Cavani got back on track. (La Hora Ecuador)


You knew Uruguay was going to lose sooner or later in the qualifiers; unfortunately, it happened sooner. Uruguay traveled into Quito’s altitude to take on the locals in a matchup of 2 of the 3 tournament leaders (Chile was the other), and lost 2-1. The Celestes were not able to reprise their performance in Bolivia, because it’s not as easy to win games in high altitude when the other team actually knows how to play. Ecuador made life miserable for Uruguay’s defense all game long, and opened the scoring in the 23rd minute on a long ball down the right side and a timely cross into the box for Felipe Caicedo. Uruguay took the blow in stride and could have tied it on a Carlos Sánchez long range shot, but the keeper pushed it wide. The half ended with Ecuador up by a goal.


Immediately following the break, Uruguay managed to draw level. A beautifully executed free kick by Nicolás Lodeiro found Edinson Cavani streaking across the box unmarked, and the Uruguayan forward headed the ball past the keeper in the first game back from his ridiculous suspension. It was Cavani’s 28th goal with the Celeste, tying him with Ángel Romano for 4th place all time (he’s 3 goals behind Romano’s teammate Héctor Scarone). Edinson could have broken that tie and given Uruguay a crucial lead a little later on, but his shot hit the crossbar after being slightly deviated by the keeper. I couldn’t find a video of just that play to link to, so just go look at the summary above. I mean, how does that not go in? Eventually Uruguay’s defensive jitters paid off for Ecuador, as Fidel Martínez took advantage of a Fernando Muslera rebound to win the game for the surprise tournament leader. The lesson: never trust someone named Fidel.


Situation Normal


Stay classy, Chile. Hey, at least that finger isn't up anyone's ass, so progress, I guess? (Depor Peru)
Stay classy, Chile. Hey, at least that finger isn’t up anyone’s ass, so progress, I guess? (Depor Peru)


After the loss, Uruguay needed to come out strong at home against Chile. Look, much was made about the “historic” rivalry between these teams and the heavy petting between Cavani and Gonzalo Jara at the last Copa America, but just let El Bolso inject a slight dose of reality into this discussion. First of all, what Jara did was awful and deserving of an immediate red, but it wasn’t unheard-of behavior. For better or worse, this stuff does happen in soccer, as players try to gain any psychological advantage on the opposition. That does not excuse the behavior, but let’s not pretend we saw something never seen before. Jara isn’t even close to the dirtiest player on his own team, not with Arturo “the Red Card Dodger” Vidal playing ahead of him. There was much talk about whether the Celeste players would snub Jara in the pregame handshake line, but in the end everyone acted their age, even Cavani, and the game started without a hitch. Second, just because Chile is currently undergoing a long-awaited renaissance it doesn’t mean there’s a true rivalry with La Celeste. One of those teams is a historic regional power with a penthouse full of trophies, and the other one got lucky one time, at home, with a lot of help from the referees (and I don’t just mean in the Uruguay game). Chile is the reigning continental champion and they have a seriously good team right now, but let’s not pretend they’re on Uruguay’s level, OK? I mean, let’s give it some time. It’s been 105 years since they even won a game in Celeste territory.


As for the game, well, Chile is going to have to wait a little bit longer for that road win. The Celestes used a well-conceived defensive scheme to shut down the vaunted Chilean attack and took advantage of their superiority in the aerial game to earn a yooge 3-0 win. Chile controlled a lot of the possession in the middle of the field, but had neither the ability nor the resolve to crack the Uruguayan back line (I swear that’s not a Jara/Cavani joke). The suffocating Celeste pressure frustrated the Chilean players, who eventually decided to just kick the living hell out of anything in a sky blue jersey. Vidal should have seen about 4 red cards, but again, he’s the Red Card Dodger. Still, he will miss the team’s next game, against Argentina, because he seems to be powerless against the color yellow (maybe I should  call him Green Lantern). Jorge Valdivia did see a red card for protesting after the game ended, which, how dumb are you? Valdivia will also watch the Argentina game from the stands, as Chile tries to get back on track after earning just 1 out of 6 points this week. Well done, Jorge.


Facing little significant pressure from Chile, Uruguay pushed their defenders forward, and it paid off in the 23rd minute. After a hard foul by Jara on Cavani (seriously Gonzalo, Edinson is just not that into you), and the obligatory group discussion and handing out of yellows, the Celestes opened the score off the ensuing free kick. Sánchez put the ball in the box, a defender cleared it, someone put the ball back in, and it landed at the feet of Sebastián Coates. With Chile’s entire defense watching, Coates, making his return to the starting lineup in place of the injured José “Chema” Giménez, used a soft touch to send the ball back into the middle for fellow central defender Diego “the Pharaoh” Godín, who put the ball in the net. Godín, who will miss the next game (against Brazil) because of yellows, is now the leading Celeste scorer in this tournament with 3 goals in 4 games. The Celestes had the lead, and would keep it until the halftime break.


15 minutes into the second half, coach Óscar Tabárez, back in the bench after his own Copa America suspension, decided to firm up the midfield defense by taking Lodeiro out and putting in Álvaro “Little Stick” Pereira. At least that’s what we thought; in reality Pereira has a history of scoring goals in big games (1 in the 2010 World Cup and 2 in the 2011 Copa America, for starters). 3 minutes later, in fact, a long ball out of the Uruguayan zone was headed backwards into the box by Cavani, and Pereira won a battle royale in front of the goal to put his own head on it and sneak it past goalkeeper Claudio Bravo. It was a huge goal, basically ending the game with 25 minutes to play. Martín Cáceres, who didn’t have a great game against Ecuador but was much better in this one, added a third goal, again on a header off a dead ball, and that was all she wrote. the Chileans kept on kicking shins, but couldn’t get close to Muslera.


Now What?


How do you say “Duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh” in Portuguese?


Four rounds into the tournament, Uruguay is still in a great position, having won 9 out of 12 possible points while scoring 9 goals and receiving only 2. Ecuador leads the overall table with a perfect record, the Celestes are in 2nd, and the trio of Brazil, Paraguay and Chile are in 3rd with 7. If the tournament ended today, those would be the 5 teams that would qualify for the World Cup and the Intercontinental playoff. Are there any familiar names missing from that list? How about Argentina, which finally won their first game in round 4 and are now in 6th place with 5 points? Yeah, they’re on the outside looking in, but you have to figure they’ll find their way back to the top, so one of those other 5 teams is probably headed for disappointment. That’s why it’s so important to grab as many points as possible, and Uruguay is doing a pretty good job of it so far.


I mean, let’s take a moment to process what happened here: just about everyone, including El Bolso, figured the best Uruguay could do in these early rounds was not fall too far behind before getting all their stars back. Instead, the Celestes have gotten off to one of their best starts in World Cup Qualifying, losing only on the road and to the best team of the tournament so far. You can’t ask for more than that.


After all the excitement of these early rounds, we’re unfortunately headed for a long break. Rounds 5 and 6 are not until March of next year. Uruguay’s next game will be on the road against Brazil, but they will have an ace up their sleeves: that’s right, after a 2 year suspension, Luis “the Gunslinger” Suárez is coming back, and not a moment too soon. If the rest of the team can maintain the level they’ve shown over the last couple of months, I think the team has an excellent chance of making it to Russia 2018. Do Skorogo, Tovarisch!


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.