Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Big guns show mediocrity in Uruguay

When it comes to being favourites in the Uruguayan Primera División, two names quickly arise to the top of all discussions - for a good reason. Peñarol and Nacional share the lionshare of fans throughout the small nation among the Río de la Plata. Their performances in recent weeks have most certainly not lived up to the traditionally high expectations. 

Four games into the new season and after a lot of promising summer signings for both teams, Nacional and Peñarol find themselves positioned in midfield of the table. The latter have collected only five points thus far, currently one point behind their archrivals. Issues are ever-present on both sides, but of completely different nature. 


Disappointment about the lack of goals (Photo: peñarol.org).
Possessing the shared-best defense in the league is a sign that would usually make you a title contender. But not so fast: Peñarol have one big problem, a surprising one you might find after summer signings of the goalgetters Gastón Rodríguez and Junior Arias. During the past Clausura, both players found themselves on top of the league's scoring sheet with 16 and 10 goals respectively for their previous teams Wanderers and Liverpool. Now they scored zero goals. Considering the fact they were supposed to be Peñarol's new striking force, it is quite obviously a key area that explains what is going wrong. 

Two goals in four games simply will not crack it in a league, where a goal can always be scored out of nowhere, for literally any team, as proven by Plaza Colonia last season. Did Gastón Rodríguez' numbers last season fool the fans in yellow and black? Let us be clear that last season was unusual for him and off the charts. 16 goals in 14 games were simply outstanding. In no other half year in his career did Rodríguez score more than six goals, mostly even less. Certainly, he is a great striker for Uruguayan league standards. 

However, Peñarol has to be aware that him alone will not win them the championship, without according support from midfield. Junior Arias on the other hand is still young, 23 years of age, while consistently having improved throughout the past years. It was the player's dream to play for the club after improving from 6 to 9 to 10 goals in the Primera. He received the chance and has not really impressed so far either.

On the bright side, the aforementioned defense has been strong so far. In front of talented goalkeeper Gastón Guruceaga, the back four has seen several changes through injury or performance. One thing that did not change were the three clean sheets to start the year. 


Focal point Martin Ligüera (Photo: nacional.uy).
If anything is not a problem for Nacional, it is the offense. They at least managed one goal in each of their four games, mixing their goalscorers around nicely, with nearly every striker scoring already. Sebastián Fernández and Martín Ligüera twice, Kevin Ramírez and Tabaré Viudez once each. Particularly apart from the 3-2 win over Plaza Colonia, it has not been all that convincing either though. 

Martin Ligüera's technical magic alone was the reason for the most recent win, when he scored from a direct freekick on the edge of the area against Fénix. The only other chance that game came from another set piece, when Mauricio Victorino headed just wide in the first half. Way too often, Martín Lasarte's men were seen playing through the middle with high balls. It is not really explicable considering the absence of a true proven number nine, unless you want to call the new signing Hugo Silveira that. 

Defensively, captain Diego Polenta and Jorge Fucile did not exactly bring the necessary stability back with them from their absences. This recently even led to Diego Espino rotating out of the first eleven to make room for Colombian Sergio Otalvaro. Nacional's defensive problems have translated straight over to the new season and could not be fixed under Lasarte so far. One thing that might help the back four is a little more balance with the defensive midfielders. Santiago Romero and Gonzalo Porras have found themselves caught in possession too often during the first weeks. Making sure to always have one player support the backline could work wonders and leave goalkeeper Esteban Conde with a little more hair on his head.

The near future

It is likely that eventually Rodríguez and Arias will start to score goals for Peñarol. Especially Arias' development speaks for a bright future for the young striker after getting used to his new surroundings. If they do not get it done, there is still Miguel Murillo in coach Pablo Bengoechea's backhand. Their defense should remain decent as the season progresses. 

Nacional on the other hand needs to fix several issues, but especially defensively. Who is going to do that? I do not know. On paper, they are good enough to play solid at the very least. However, when it comes to the on-pitch product, there is severe room for improvement. The fact that they somewhat rely on Ligüera offensively by now is not good considering his age, but should keep going well in the near future still. 

The good news for both is clearly that top of the table Danubio only collected nine points so far too, followed by several clubs with eight points. By having one good weekend, both teams would be right back in the mix to play for the title in Uruguay. That is the beauty of South American football. 


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