Uruguay came through qualifying with flying colours. Of course, they were beaten to top spot by an indomitable Brazil side but showed plenty of attacking verve and positive signs in their run to pip Argentina to second place in the South American continent.
Oscar Tabarez has assembled a squad anchored by seasoned pros like Diego Godin, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez and peppered with young attacking talent. With an energetic, youthful exuberance – particularly in midfield – La Celeste are a force to be reckoned with.
Their greatest strength lies in their famed two-pronged attack. In Suarez and Cavani, they possess a strike partnership as good as any in the world. While the Barcelona star has many facets to his game and can excel when doubling up as a creator of goals, Cavani has proved himself as a master marksmen.
He was the top scorer across all South American teams during qualifying with 10 goals to his name. At club level as well, he’s taken centre stage, scoring 49 goals in all competitions for Paris Saint-Germain last season while he has 40 this time around.
In Godin, Uruguay have an inspirational leader at the heart of their defence, capable of marshalling the back-line to perfection. Of late, the young Jose Gimenez has emerged as a worthy central defensive partner for the old stalwart. However, their full-backs leave much to be desired. Martin Caceres is past his best and has struggled for playing time at Lazio.
Meanwhile, Guillermo Varela hasn’t always been the most convincing at right-back. On the other side, Gaston Silva has been in and out of the team while Diego Laxalt is a makeshift left-back. Although the midfield has been aided by youth, it does lack stability with Tabarez experimenting with different players and combinations.
Uruguay hold a prestigious place in World Cup history, boasting the distinction of being the first ever champions having also hosted the inaugural edition in 1930.
Their other win came in 1950, while they placed fourth in South Africa eight years ago under the guidance of Tabarez. They were knocked out by Colombia in the last 16 in 2014.
Luis Suarez hasn’t enjoyed an extraordinary season, by his standards at least, but retains his standing as Uruguay’s match-winner. Blessed with remarkable technique, intelligence and a relentless work ethic, he’s just the kind of player that can make the difference when the pressure’s on.
The grand old man of Uruguayan football. Oscar Tabarez has led the national team for 14 years over two spells, winning the Copa America in 2011. Renowned for his pragmatism, his teams have a reputation for being passionate, dogged and difficult to beat.
When you think of Uruguay’s best performances over the last decade, they’re brave, battling displays and Diego Godin is invariably a central figure in every one of them. The Atletico Madrid vicecaptain is a rock at the back, he’s reliable as ever and wears his heart on his sleeve.
The 20-year-old has impressed in his first season with Serie A side Juventus despite starting on the bench on most occasions. His height and strength makes him a formidable force in midfield as does his range of passing while his versatility serves as an added bonus.
KEY FACTS AND STATS
– Only the first verse and chorus on their national anthem is played ahead of games. The complete version lasts six minutes and is one of the longest anthems in the world.
– Ururguay have won the Copa America 15 times, more than any other team.
– In terms of population (3.44 million according to the latest survey), Uruguay are the smallest country to ever win a World Cup.
– 291, touches in the opposition’s box for Suarez in 17/18 La Liga.
80 DEF 77 MID 86 ATT
World Cups competed at
13 (First in 1930)
World Cup record
P51, W20, D12, L19
Champions (1930 & 1950)
P18, W9, D4, L5
Fernando Muslera (Galatasaray), Martin Silva (Vasco da Gama), Martin Campana (Independiente).
Diego Godin, Jose Maria Gimenez (both Atletico Madrid), Sebastian Coates (Sporting Lisbon), Maximiliano Pereira (Porto), Gaston Silva (Independiente), Martin Caceres (Lazio), Guillermo Varela (Penarol).
Nahitan Nandez (Boca Juniors), Lucas Torreira (Sampdoria), Matias Vecino (Inter Milan), Rodrigo Bentancur (Juventus), Carlos Sanchez (Monterrey), Giorgian De Arrascaeta (Cruzeiro), Diego Laxalt (Genoa), Cristian Rodriguez (Penarol), Jonathan Urretaviscaya (Monterrey).
Cristhian Stuani (Girona), Maximiliano Gomez (Celta Vigo), Edinson Cavani (Paris St-Germain), Luis Suarez (Barcelona).
Round of 16. They pack a punch but realistically, aren’t even outside favourites although they could spring a couple of upsets along the way.
Rashford’s man-of-the-match performance against Costa Rica earlier this week, when he scored a wonderful effort from 25 yards, gave Gareth Southgate plenty to think about as he ponders the best options to support Harry Kane in attack.
Rashford could be going head to head with Raheem Sterling and Sharpe would like to see the Three Lions boss place his trust in the 20-year-old, who he believes is primed to flourish on the global stage.
“I think he could be huge for England at the tournament,” Sharpe said.
“There are a few senior international defenders who will be absolutely petrified of him if he’s given licence to just run at people and do his stuff. He should be told to go and fill his boots and express himself.
“Rashford could scare people to death out there, score a few goals and win a few penalties.”
Sharpe, who burst through the Red Devils youth ranks under Sir Alex Ferguson before Rashford was even born, has been less impressed with the player’s recent experiences at United.
Having emerged out of nowhere as a match-winning 18-year-old, the forward has had to settle for a lesser role since Mourinho settled into the manager’s office at Old Trafford.
He started just four Premier League games since the turn of the year, sharing game time with Anthony Martial and slipping down the pecking order after the arrival of Alexis Sanchez.
“I think he’s been a little bit harshly treated, dipping in and out of the team has not helped him,” said Sharpe.
“It doesn’t seem like Jose Mourinho is building a team around him and he’s never been one for putting young ones in.
“Having been a similar age in a similar sort of position to Marcus, I know how it feels and even though you get the odd week where you get tired you need to get that rhythm and to feel the manager is backing you. Sanchez coming in and taking a place hasn’t helped him.
“To be in and out just isn’t great and it’s also a little tough for him being in a team who aren’t playing fluently, moving the ball around and dominating.”
– Lee Sharpe was speaking at the McDonald’s & Lancashire FA Community football Day in Astley. For more information about events this summer visit www.mcdonalds.co.uk/communityfootballdays.
“How stupid can you be to choose Morocco if you are in contention for the Dutch national team?”
Suffice to say, Marco van Basten’s words directed at Hakim Ziyech two years ago haven’t aged well.
The Netherlands of course did not qualify for Russia while Ajax’s Dutch-born star Ziyech has helped Morocco reach their first World Cup in two decades.
In Van Basten’s defence, there is understandable frustration given the vast swathes of promising young kids raised in the Netherlands who receive the best training Europe can offer only to opt for another country.
But often nations like Morocco are viewed as the final destination rather than a primary option, now, however, the narrative has shifted.
Under the guidance of Herve Renard, the underrated French boss who has won the African Cup of Nations with Zambia and Ivory Coast, the Atlas Lions have emerged as arguably the best African team at this tournament.
They topped a qualifying group featuring respected African outfits Gabon, Mali and heavily fancied Ivory Coast without conceding a single goal, and while the side is hallmarked by defensive steel, Morocco possess sharp attackers capable of cutting up any team.
Indeed, while they’ve been thrown in with the Group B sharks of Spain and Portugal, if neither predator is alert, they’ll see that Lions eat first.
Do not misinterpret the unbridled joy the team received when qualification was secured for a graciousness of simply booking their spot – Renard has nurtured a finely balanced side.
Captain Mehdi Benatia leads a parsimonious defence which includes Real Madrid’s talented and enterprising young full-back Achraf Hakimi.
In midfield, Al Jazira’s Mbark Boussoufa is a deeply impressive player, who whether deployed in a two as a defensive shield, on his own as a No10 or even out wide, is always a classy operator.
Renard has also been blessed with technically gifted stars like Younes Belhanda and Ziyech. Morocco have a past with the World Cup – they were the first African side to reach the knockout stages in 1986 while in 1998 were minutes away from reaching the last-16 again.
This crop is primed to write their own history.
He is arguably Ajax’s most talented star but his relationship with the Dutch side’s fans has soured this season. The wing wizard could be in the shop window and his dazzling dribbling is sure to catch the eye.
There’s been rumours he could jump ship and manage Algeria after the World Cup but the flamboyant Frenchman has shut the gossip down. He’s not the most talented tactician but his passionate persona guided Zambia and Ivory Coast to African titles so he has pedigree.
Morocco are built in the image of the Juventus centre-back. A physical colossus, the 31-year-old has showed signs of redemption after his Bayern blip, producing the type of form which saw him reviewed as Serie A’s best defender in 2013/14 with Roma.
It has been a baptism of fire for the 19-year-old Real Madrid full-back with Zinedine Zidane throwing him into the first-team fold for much of his first senior season with Los Blancos. He’s handled the pressure excellently and is one of the tournament’s most promising young stars.
STATS AND FACTS
– Morocco were the first African side to win a group at the World Cup, when they finished ahead of England, Poland and Portugal in 1986
– 20 years since Morocco last qualified for the World Cup
– Morocco are in a two-horse race with the joint bid of the United States, Canada and Mexico to host the 2026 World Cup. The vote is held on June 13.
77 DEF 77 MID 74 ATT
World Cups competed at
5 (First in 1970)
World Cup record
P13, W2, D4, L7
Round of 16 (1986)
P8, W4, D3, L1
Goalkeepers: Mounir El Kajoui (Numancia), Yassine Bounou (Girona), Ahmad Reda Tagnaouti (Ittihad Tanger).
Defenders: Mehdi Benatia (Juventus), Romain Saiss (Wolves), Manuel Da Costa (Istanbul Basaksehir), Nabil Dirar (Fenerbahce), Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid), Hamza Mendyl (Lille).
Midfielders: M’barek Boussoufa (Al Jazira), Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord), Youssef Ait Bennasser (Caen), Sofyan Amrabat (Feyenoord), Younes Belhanda (Galatasaray), Faycal Fajr (Getafe), Amine Harit (Schalke).
Forwards: Khalid Boutaib (Malatyaspor), Aziz Bouhaddouz (St Pauli), Ayoub El Kaabi (Renaissance Berkane), Nordin Amrabat (Leganes), Mehdi Carcela (Standard Liege), Hakim Ziyech (Ajax), Youssef En Nesyri (Malaga).
They have previous for topping a group featuring Portugal at the 1986 World Cup but a Ronaldo-led side and Spain should surely qualify in Russia.