Friendlies allow Uruguay's next generation a chance to shine
Uruguay fly home on Tuesday from their Far East jaunt to Japan and South Korea. Next month, they head to the Middle East to take on Saudi Arabia and Oman.
These fixtures reveal that, for South American national teams, we are in the silly season. For the first year after a World Cup, there are no competitive fixtures. The serious stuff doesn't get going until next June with the Copa America in Chile -- a title worth fighting for and also a preparation ground for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, which get underway soon after.
Until then, though, there are just friendly matches, in which often the teams appear most concerned with making money -- hence all these long trips to Asia or the other prevalent feature, South American teams facing each other in the USA.
It would be foolish, then, to attach too much importance to the results of these matches. A win, though, remains a win -- and Uruguay will be very happy to have come back from the Far East with two victories -- 2-0 against Japan and 1-0 against South Korea. These are not easy places to go; to win both matches without conceding a goal is a boost to confidence.
Much more important, though, is the progress made in rebuilding an aging side. In this respect, things could hardly have gone better. Last year, Uruguay reached the final of the World Under-20 Cup in Turkey, where they lost on penalties to France. Two members of that side were successfully introduced to senior international football in the past few days, and a third enhanced his reputation still further.
This is a reference to teenage centre-back Jose Maria Gimenez, who has already acquired significant senior experience. He was thrown in the deep end almost a year ago in World Cup qualification, when injuries and suspensions depleted Uruguay's centre back resources before the visit of the dangerous Colombia.
Gimenez played so well in an important win that he got a tattoo of the date of the match. If he gets ink every time he plays well for Uruguay, he will soon run out of skin. He stepped in during the World Cup after captain Diego Lugano was injured and now seems established as Lugano's long-term replacement. He played fine games against Japan and South Korea and capped it off by heading the only goal of the latter match.
The earlier victory, against Japan, was the scene of a promising senior debut for Diego Rolan, another graduate from the 2013 Under-20 team. The skillful support striker has made an excellent start to his second season with Bordeaux in the French league, and he looked full of confidence against the Japanese, especially in the first half. He set up the opening goal for Edinson Cavani with a typically wriggly piece of balance and turned well to slip a killer pass into the path of the centre forward.
Before moving to France, Rolan came up the youth ranks of Defensor, a relatively small Montevideo club with a splendid record of producing talented youngsters. Their latest gem is playmaker Giorgian De Arrascaeta, one of the stars of last year's Under-20 team.
His senior debut was eagerly awaited and did not disappoint. De Arrascaeta came on for the last half hour of Monday's match against South Korea. His first action was to win a tackle and slip an excellent pass through for striker Abel Hernandez, whose shot was blocked by the goalkeeper. The ball was cleared but played straight back to De Arrascaeta, who split the Japan defence once more with another perfectly weighted pass. This time Hernandez beat the keeper, but the goal was ruled out for a narrow offside.
A few minutes later, De Arrascaeta pressed the Japanese defence and won a free kick close to the left byline. He took it himself and whipped in a cross that was met by a Gimenez at the far post with a thumping header for the only goal of the game.
Full of talent and personality, De Arrascaeta can look back on a debut to remember, and Uruguay can look forward with a bit more confidence in the camp. Their tame 2-0 World Cup elimination against Colombia seemed like the end of an era, the final curtain falling on a team that had achieved success over the previous seven years.
It would be unwise to get carried away. But the evidence -- to be assessed cautiously -- of these two friendlies is that the rebuilding process need not be too traumatic. A new generation stands waiting.
But there will soon be a need to replace one of the players who perhaps best represents the soul of the Uruguayan team in recent years. Little defensive midfielder Egidio Arevalo Rios will never be a star. But that is not his objective. He plays within his limitations, all the while carrying out a vital job for his team. Arevalo Rios is the midfield enforcer, the man who runs, covers and tackles, who spots the danger early and goes across to snuff it out.
But, now 32, he cannot go on forever. Perhaps next month's fixtures will provide an opportunity for Uruguay to continue their rebuilding process by blooding a younger player in his position -- someone with the defensive discipline to allow the likes of De Arrascaeta the freedom to shine.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.