By Kris Voakes in Sao Paulo
Uruguay are back where they started.
Two weeks ago, they headed to Fortaleza knowing that Luis Suarez would not be available for selection against Costa Rica. On Saturday, their star striker begins a nine-match international ban while his team-mates prepare to face Colombia in the last 16 of the World Cup.
While the footage of Suarez sinking his teeth into Giorgio Chiellini continues to be shown ad infinitum on news channels all across the globe, coach Oscar Tabarez will comfort himself with the knowledge that the controversial Liverpool forward has at least left his side in a position of relative strength.
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The good news for Tabarez is that Uruguay actually beat Italy on Tuesday without Suarez having a huge say. A couple of half-chances fell his way, but at no point did he look likely to repeat his one-man show against England in Sao Paulo which had put the South Americans back on track.
Instead, it was a return to the kind of unit-inspired performance that had made the side so dangerous for years before. Throughout their run to the Copa America title, as well as their campaign in the Confederations Cup here in Brazil last year, their success had come mainly from their tactic of squeezing opposition teams with an uncompromising defence and destructive midfield.
And while the ability to unleash the magnificent front three of Diego Forlan, Suarez and Edinson Cavani transformed a system durable into an electric one, there is still evidence that Uruguay might have something to offer at the World Cup beyond Saturday.
Suarez is back in Montevideo, taking away one of their main threats, while Forlan has struggled over the past 12 months in particular to replicate his quality of years gone by – with his move to Cerezo Osaka reflecting his waning reputation.
Yet he does not have 111 international caps for no reason, and it is in exactly the kind of situation in which Uruguay will find themselves on Saturday when the ex-Atletico Madrid star’s experience might be needed most. Still, he cannot be counted on for the full 90 minutes anymore.
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The likelihood is that it will be Cavani carrying most of the attacking hopes, with the Paris Saint-Germain striker becoming the most potent threat that Uruguay can boast outside of set-pieces now that they are shorn of Suarez.
If Tabarez is to have a serious hope of taking this side to a semi-final or more – especially considering Brazil could stand in their way – then Cavani needs to raise his game on the big stage.
His return of 22 goals in 65 appearances at international level is hardly disappointing, but he has not exactly become known for delivering in major knockout football on the big stage in recent years.
He has twice failed to deliver from good positions in key moments of Champions League clashes against Chelsea, first for Napoli in 2012 and then for PSG this year, and replicated that weakness when Uruguay were hanging on against England.
So long as the rest of the side doesn’t crumble at the sight of Colombia as it did against Costa Rica, Uruguay stand a chance. But with Suarez gone, Cavani is now the man who must become the centre of attention if they are not to be back in Montevideo with their disgraced star sooner rather than later.