Copa America 2019: Can dark horses Uruguay go all the way?

Andy West 10:47 14/06/2019
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At one end of the field, Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez…a pair of tough and uncompromising central defenders who come with the additional benefit of playing nearly 200 club games together for Atletico Madrid.

At the other end, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani…two of the game’s most prolific strikers, whose silk and steel blend provides a perfect partnership capable of overcoming any defence.

Make no mistake: Uruguay are very, very dangerous as they head to Brazil for the latest edition of Copa America.

Brazil, of course, should be regarded as favourites to lift the trophy on home soil, as they aim to end their 12-year wait for a major trophy since last winning Copa America in 2007.

Even taking into account the absence of luckless iconic leader Neymar, who must be wondering if he will ever have the chance to complete a major international tournament without being dogged by injury, the hosts still look the strongest all-round team on paper.

But Brazil are far from infallible. On an individual level, Philippe Coutinho could be traumatised by a terrible season with Barcelona and consequent uncertainty over his future, Gabriel Jesus had no more than a moderate season with Manchester City and Roberto Firmino is lacking match sharpness after finishing Liverpool’s gruelling season hampered by injury.

Collectively, there are more question marks hanging over Tite’s squad: can they overcome the defensive frailty which destroyed last summer’s World Cup campaign against Belgium? Will the pressure of performing in front of feverish home crowds prove too much, as it did in 2014? And, of course, how will the team react to the loss of Neymar?

If the hosts do slip up, Uruguay – continental champions in 2011 and World Cup quarter-finalists a year ago – are probably best placed to take advantage.

They certainly appear to have the greatest depth in the goalscoring department, with Suarez and Cavani (102 international goals combined) backed up by rising star Maxi Gomez and gnarly veteran Cristhian Stuani, both of whom enjoyed excellent seasons with lowly teams in La Liga: Gomez scored 13 for Celta Vigo, while Stuani netted 19 for relegated Girona.

The organisational skills of Godin and tenacity of Gimenez in the centre of defence will ensure that Uruguay are as tough to break down as they were 12 months ago in Russia, when they advanced into the World Cup knockout rounds by keeping three consecutive clean sheets in the group stage.

The big difference from last season’s side, however, lies in a midfield which could be manned by two exciting young players who enjoyed breakthrough campaigns with major European teams: Arsenal’s Lucas Torreira and Fede Valverde of Real Madrid.

Torreira did feature in last summer’s World Cup, starting both knockout games against Portugal and France, but the experience he gained this season with Arsenal – starting 24 Premier League games – have made him into a more rounded and confident performance, ready to grab a more prominent role at international level.

Valverde, meanwhile, is a complete novice in tournament play, having been named in the provisional 26-man squad for Russia last summer but failing to make the final cut.

The 20 year-old was one of very few bright spots in a hugely disappointing campaign for Real Madrid, doing enough in his 16 league outings – despite most of them coming from the bench – to leap ahead of Marcos Llorente in the pecking order and earn the favour of Zinedine Zidane, who started Valverde in five of the team’s last eight games.

With Torreira’s defensive aptitude and Valverde’s tireless running and daring creativity, they could prove to be a perfect combination in midfield, adding a new dimension to a Uruguay team which has been solid but rather predictable over the last few years.

Veteran boss Oscar Tabarez may start with one or both on the bench, with Matias Vecino offering far more experience and another talented youngster, Rodrigo Bentancur of Juventus, also available.

But Torreira and Valverde are the future, and if Tabarez dares to allow them to become the present it could add a new dimension to his team…and maybe even make them Copa America champions.

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