Uruguay need to defy odds to live up to World Cup expectations
How deep can Uruguay dig this time?
Doing things the hard way is part of their footballing identity, and they had to haul themselves out of huge trouble merely to book their place in Brazil. At one point in South America's qualification campaign it seemed that they would fall short of fifth place, the playoff position, but they pulled themselves through with crunch away wins against Venezuela and Peru, direct rivals for the slot.
On the first of those occasions, they had to do it without the suspended Luis Suarez. Now, when they take on England in their do-or-die second group game, they should welcome back their outstanding player and all-time top scorer. Suarez missed the hugely disappointing debut against Costa Rica when, a goal ahead at the interval, Uruguay collapsed in the second half to lose 3-1.
Anyone expecting some sparkling stuff from the Uruguayans was always going to be disappointed.
The team fashioned by coach Oscar Washington Tabarez is one that is well aware of its limitations, and seeks to operate within them. Last week Tabarez reminded the media of what he told his players eight years ago, when he began his second spell in charge of the national team.
"We're not among the best," he said, "but if we form a group we can give anyone a hard game."
The flip side is this; if they fail to do the simple things well, they can lose to almost anyone. And last Saturday in Fortaleza, they let in the first two goals from crosses, the second a regulation set piece.
Once they had gone 2-1 down it was hard to see a way back. As they laboured to chase the game, Uruguay looked every inch what they are -- an aging side. Many of them have been together since the 2007 Copa America. One way or another, plenty of this squad are making their international farewell in Brazil.
Those aging limbs wilted in the scalding afternoon heat on Saturday -- which raises questions about the wisdom of preparing for the tournament at home. Uruguay's warm-up friendlies kicked off at 8:30 at night in the bitter evening air of the Montevideo winter -- hardly an adequate way to get ready for the conditions of Saturday's game.
Thursday's showdown is in the much cooler climes of Sao Paulo, which should suit them much better. And the return of Suarez is also crucial.
He and strike partner Edinson Cavani may have to get by on scraps. Uruguay are not a team who dominate possession. In all of their matches in their run to the 2010 semifinals, the opposition had more of the ball -- but Uruguay had more shots. It would be a surprise if Uruguay were to deviate from this model; the fact that England also have to win means that the Uruguayans can sit deep, with their defensive and midfield lines close together.
This is important because Tabarez is worried by the attacking pace of the England side, who he thought were unlucky to lose to Italy. He also has identified Steven Gerrard as their supply line -- perhaps the ever-willing Cavani will be expected to close him down.
Rather than give their opponents the chance to launch the counterattack, Uruguay will seek to hurt England with swift breaks of their own, where the ability of Suarez to hang on the shoulder of the last defender will be important. Is he fit enough to outrun the defence? To change direction at pace?
Not since 1970 have Uruguay beaten European opposition at a World Cup. With England to come, followed by Italy, they will have to bring that run to an end to have any chance of staying alive in the competition. If not, first-round elimination will present a painful contrast with the previous World Cup in Brazil, back in 1950, when Uruguay went home with the trophy.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC.