The World Cup commenced overnight; a rambunctious opening ceremony featuring pop star Robbie William making way for the Russians to put a hapless Saudi Arabia to the sword.
With the first full slate of group games set to commence tonight, the pundits and bookmakers have already had their say on who should be favoured heading into the tournament; with the familiar names of Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Spain all dominating the conversations.
Less heralded heading into this year’s tournament though is a nation that will be very familiar to fans of Australian football: South America’s Uruguay.
Whilst many are picking Óscar Tabárez’s side to easily progress from a Group A that also contains the host Russians, Saudi Arabia and Egypt; there are relatively few that are predicting La Celeste to lift the World Cup trophy.
Uruguay recovered from a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Costa Rica to defeat both England and Italy and finish second in Group D of the 2014 tournament in Brazil.
However, they were unable to continue the momentum of slaying two of world football’s traditional powerhouses as they crashed out 2-0 against fellow South American side Colombia.
Tabárez was in charge of the Uruguayans at that tournament – as he was in 1990 and 2010 – but enters Russia 2018 with a vastly different outlook than the one he took to Brazil.
Previously, Tabárez’s sides were steadfast in defence, with strong central defensive pairings and wide defenders who preferred to stay home rather than venture forward and were possesing of a midfield that was all about mitigating damage and quickly moving the ball forward to lethal attackers Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani.
However, in the process of qualifying for the 2018 tournament, Uruguay has undergone a metamorphosis.
The introduction of Rodrigo Bentancur of Juventus, Nahitan Nández of Boca Juniors, Lucas Torreira of Sampdoria and Matías Vecino of Inter Milan to the midfield has seen a striking change in the way Uruguay approach the game.
Now, Uruguay not only possesses a trusted number one goalkeeper in Fernando Muslera, who has been the first choice since he debuted against Ecuador in 2009, a strong defence that features Atlético Madrid defensive pairing Diego Godín and José María Giménez, and the best one-two attacking punch in world football in Suárez and Cavani; they also possess a young, creative and high-quality midfield.
Vencino, who turned down overtures from Italy to play for Uruguay, has developed a tenacious nature in the middle of the park in his time in Serie A; giving the opposition no time on the ball as they look to move it through the midfield whilst also possessing a wicked long-range shot.
In contrast, the towering Bentancur – who has packed muscle onto his long frame since arriving in Turin – is a swashbuckler;a player that loves to get on the ball and run up the field. He’s also excellent in distribution, completing 91% of his passes in his five Champions League appearances for Juventus.
Nández, who was captaining Uruguayan side Peñarol as a 20-year-old, is a dangerous weapon that brings the ability to serve as an attack-minded driver of play, sit back at the base of the midfield and provide cover or, as he likely will in Russia, play out wide on the left.
Arsenal target Torreira is unlikely to start in Russia, but nonetheless brings a resolve that belies his 168cm frame. He excels at reading the play in order to break up potential attacks, and his ability to distribute the ball once he wins it adds another dangerous aspect to his game.
This infusion of fresh, supremely talented blood into the midfield of Tabárez’s side means that, whilst the focus on a 4-4-2 with intense pressure hasn’t shifted from previous years, the Uruguayans now possess a midfield packed with talent, creativity and, most importantly for La Celeste’s prospects, improved service for Suárez and Cavani.
It means that the Uruguayans come to Russia with no obvious weaknesses to exploit, with a team that is more balanced than any of its past efforts, a team that is capable of maximizing the strengths of its world-class strike pairing whilst limiting their need to shoulder the entire burden.
In short: It’s a team that can win the World Cup.
With perhaps the easiest path to the second round of any of the tournament favourites, Uruguay has the ability to generate a tangible sense of momentum and team cohesion as the tournament progresses, before a likely potentially huge meeting with Spain or Portugal looms in the Round of 32.
Progress past that and there’s no telling what La Celeste can achieve.