Qualifying for Qatar was not plain sailing for Uruguay. Their qualifying campaign in South America began with a run of two wins from their first seven games and they were dealt a tough hand this time last year, when they faced Colombia, Brazil, Argentina (twice) and a trip to the high altitudes of La Paz in Bolivia in a two-month spell. They picked up just one point from those five games and looked in danger of missing the finals for the first time since 2006.
However, when the going got tough, Uruguay got going. They won their final four qualifying matches and finished third in the 10-team group, behind Brazil and Argentina. The two-time world champions are now many fans’ dark horses and it’s easy to see why.
In defence, they have the experience of Fernando Muslera, Diego Godín and Martín Cáceres – along with La Liga pair José María Giménez and Ronald Araújo – and, in attack, they still have their all-time top scorers Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani, who have 125 goals between them for the national team. On top of that, Uruguay have a group of players in Darwin Núñez (23), Maxi Gómez (26), Rodrigo Bentancur (25), Manuel Ugarte (21) and Lucas Torreira (26) who are just entering their prime.
If Uruguay are going to be successful in Qatar, much will depend on one man: Federico Valverde. He is a central midfielder by trade, but Carlo Ancelotti has tended to use Valverde on the right flank for Real Madrid this season, and it has worked well. Ancelotti’s side is well stocked in the middle of the park, even after the departure of Casemiro to Manchester United. Aurélien Tchouaméni, a €100m signing from Monaco, is proving an astute replacement for the Brazilian, and Valverde has been superb on the right.
The 24-year-old has a bright future in the Real Madrid midfield. The mesmeric Luka Modric turned 37 in September and Toni Kroos will be 33 in January. In Tchouaméni, Valverde and Eduardo Camavinga, Real Madrid have a central trio who could dominate midfields in Europe for years. For the coming weeks, though, Valverde’s job is to inspire Uruguay to success on the world stage.
His versatility gives Uruguay options, with coach Diego Alonso likely to play him on the right wing in a 4-4-2. If Uruguay need an additional body in central midfield, Valverde is able to tuck in and boost the numbers in the middle of the park. Alonso is essentially fielding one player to carry out two roles.
Valverde works tirelessly when out of possession, hassling opponents to win back the ball for his side so they can spring forward quickly. He has won possession the ninth-most times (12) in La Liga this season, which is impressive given that he plays for a side that enjoys an average of 58.2% possession, the third-most in La Liga. Real Madrid tend to dominate teams but, when they lose the ball, Valverde is there to provide the pressure and rapidly seize back control.
He has also added goals to his game this season. While previously thought of as primarily a ball-winner, his all-round game has developed superbly, so much so that he has scored six league goals so far this season – making him joint-sixth in La Liga’s scoring charts. In his previous five campaigns in La Liga, Valverde hit the back of the net just five times.
He is also among the fittest players in Qatar. Many a Real Madrid fan has quipped that his stamina and athleticism make it seem as though he has three lungs. He will run and run and run for the team and, in the testing Qatari climate, his work-rate will be imperative for Uruguay. He has also impressed in the Champions League this season and that experience will be crucial in the latter stages of the World Cup.
Uruguay were drawn in one of the more unpredictable groups. With four teams from different continents in their group – they face South Korea, Portugal and then Ghana – it’s difficult to predict who will progress to the last-16 stage. Yet, with Valverde in the team, they will fancy their chances of reaching the knockout phase and living up to their billing as dark horses.