My first memories of Uruguay as football team – and quite possibly of their existence as a country at all – came from the World Cup in 1986. They were in Scotland’s group then, and were portrayed as thugs, a bunch of big cheating, spoiling, fouling, cynical bruisers who would – if the ref let them – hack Scotland’s magnificent collection of creative wizards out of the tournament. In the event, of course, Scotland did get some help from the ref; Uruguay played the last 89 minutes with ten men, but a Scotland side who had in any case already lost to Denmark and Germany weren’t good enough to break them down.
Times haven’t changed much, Scotland are still regarded as one of the world’s brilliant football sides (I think), and Uruguay still seem to be thought of as cheats and spoilers. They aren’t, and this display should go further to convincing people that Uruguay are a very tidy side and a force not to be underestimated in the latter stages of the tournament. Forlan is the pivot of the attack, but if he was a bit less influential today than in the win over South Africa then he was ably supported by his teammates, particularly Palermo’s Edinson Cavani. At the back, marshalled by a good old-fashioned centre-back in Diego Lugano, they are yet to concede in the tournament.

And here, in a situation in which they already topped the group and thus, of the two sides, they had appeared to have even less incentive to take any chances, they were the side who came out showing more positive intent, taking the game to Mexico and only closing things down late on in the second half as Mexico finally mustered a sustained spell of pressure.

With a draw here suiting both teams, there were of course suggestions in some quarters that this game might be a tame goalless draw – if not actually a stitch-up then based on a tacit understanding between the players. I didn’t think that was likely – both teams would surely rather have topped the group and avoid (probably) Argentina – and within the opening few minutes it was apparent that any such fears were groundless. We were going to have a proper game. Luis Suarez, Ajax’s prolific striker, had a good early chance for Uruguay, collecting a long ball the defence had misjudged, but fired his shot across goal and wide. He tried an ambitious chip a few minutes later which was easily saved, then Alvaro Pereira hit a shot wastefully wide of the near post instead of feeding it across goal for Forlan.

Mexico weren’t contributing nothing to the game, and they came closest yet to opening thje scoring when Andrés Guardado rattled the underside of the bar from thirty yards. Giovanni dos Santos looked lively for them too, cutting in from the right hand side and having a good running battle with Jorge Fucile over the course of the game.

Sometime before the half hour the news came through that South Africa were a goal up, then that France were a man down, and when – in the 38th minute – Cavani hit a sweet right-wing cross to the back post and Suarez planted a downward header expertly into the net to take the lead, things were starting to look very interesting. And more so again when, within seconds, news of South Africa’s second goal came through. That put South Africa more than halfway on target by half-time, a three goal swing in the goal difference column, and two more required.

Mexico were understandably nervy as we started the second half, and there was no question of them relying on France and attenpting just to avoid conceding goals. Uruguay still looked dangerous on the break, and might easily have scored again when Lugano had a header well saved from a free-kick. After a while though, they sat back as Mexico took control of poessession. They were helped by the substituions here – one at half-time and two more early in the second half. The veteran Blanco had started this time, rather than come on as sub himself as before, but it was when the youngsters came on that they looked much more dangerous. Arsenal’s Carlos Vela was missing for this game, but both Pablo Barrera and new Man United signing Javier Hernandez came on and, with dos Santos, were by now posing Uruguay some problems.

It only really produced one golden chance, and it fell to a defender – the unmarked Francisco Rodriguez threw himself at Barrera’s cross, got a decent connection on it but it flashed wide of the far post with the ‘keeper stranded. Other than that, Uruguay largely kept them out, and as news came through that France had pulled a goal back and the pressure was off, this game petered out. Cavani had the last chance of note, a long range shot that had to be parried round the post, but by now they were happy to play out time.

So the South American bandwgon keeps rolling and Uruguay win the group. Those who’ve been religiously following every word of our World Cup coverage here on twohundredpercent may have noticed that I tipped them as my surprise package at the outset. I’m still quietly confident, assuming Argentina win Group B there’s no one else that they’ll be too scared of among the potential last sixteen opponents – or even among possible quarter-final opponents really, especially if Germany recover to win their group and go into the bottom half of the draw. So I give them a fighting chance of making the semi-finals.

Mexico qualify too and will find life tougher, but if they go with the younger players they’re capable of giving Argentina, if it is them, a trickier test than they’ve had thus far.

Thanks again to Historical Football Kits for the use of their graphics.