(Reuters) - Uruguay will arrive at next year’s World Cup more upbeat than at any time in recent memory after easing through the qualifying campaign to book their spot in Russia.
The Uruguayans, champions in 1930 and 1950, have struggled to qualify for soccer’s biggest tournament in recent editions, scraping through via intercontinental playoffs in 2002, 2010 and 2014, while missing out altogether in 2006.
Yet it was plain sailing this time around as they finished second in the 10-team South American group, while scoring more goals than anyone bar first-placed Brazil.
The reason for their optimism will be precisely because of that ability to put the ball in the net.
Striker Luis Suarez gets most of the attention but players have chipped in with goals from all over the pitch, with fellow forward Edinson Cavani topping the South American scoring chart with 10, twice as many as Suarez.
The 30-year-old Paris St Germain player has started the season well in France and if he can keep that run going in Russia then Uruguay will strike fear into many a defence.
Another trump card is their wily old coach Oscar Tabarez.
The man affectionately dubbed ‘El Maestro’ has decades of top-level experience and has looked to the future by patiently blooding youngsters in recent games.
Uruguay’s stalwarts -- Suarez, Cavani, Cristian Rodriguez, Diego Godin, Martin Caceres and Egidio Arevalo Rios -- are all the wrong side of 30, prompting Tabarez to introduce youth, especially in the midfield, where Uruguay’s emphasis on strong running is most evident.
Nahitan Nandez (21), Rodrigo Bentancur (20) and Federico Valverde (19) have all ether made their debuts or cemented their places this year.
Russia may be the 70-year-old Tabarez’s swan-song but he is laying the groundwork for his successor. If they can repeat their outstanding feat of reaching the semi-finals in 2010 then he will bow out at the top.
Reporting by Andrew Downie; Editing by Toby Davis