Uruguay has uphill battle against Dutch
What's on the line:
Two teams trying to recapture past glories will face off Tuesday in Cape Town in the first of two World Cup semifinals. The Netherlands will be trying to reach the final for the first time since 1978, when it lost to host Argentina. Uruguay has endured an even longer drought. It last reached the semis in 1970 and it has been 60 years since the country won the second of its two World Cup titles.
Style and tactics:
The Dutch are one of the prime exponents of possession soccer. Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben provide some breathtaking creativity, while Dirk Kuyt does the dirty work in attack. Yet the Netherlands has proved throughout the tournament that it also has the ability to grind out results. Holding midfielders Nigel De Jong and Mark Van Bommel have displayed the requisite grit to get the Oranje through difficult moments, although De Jong's suspension for too many yellow cards means that Demy De Zeeuw will need to step in on Tuesday. Right back Gregory Van Der Wiel is also suspended, with Khalid Boulahrouz his likely replacement.
The center of the Dutch defense is thought to be suspect, although Johnny Heitinga and Andre Ooijer played better as the Brazil game wore on, the latter performing in place of injured starter Joris Mathijsen.
Uruguay takes more of a counterattacking approach, relying on an airtight defense and the attacking verve of Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez to grab its spot in the semifinals. Uruguay's central midfield tandem of Diego Perez and Egidio Arevalo has provided an effective shield in front of the team's back line, which has conceded just two goals in the tournament.
Alas for La Celeste, both aspects of their game have been compromised heading into the match. Left back Jorge Fucile is suspended for accumulation of yellow cards, while Suarez is also banned after being ejected for a deliberate handball late in his side's quarterfinal victory over Ghana.
The injury bug has also bitten Uruguay hard. Captain Diego Lugano, who has been a rock in the center of Uruguay's defense, will likely be sidelined with a damaged knee ligament, while young playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro has been ruled out for the rest of the tournament with a broken foot.
Despite these absences, it seems unlikely that Uruguay will change its tactics at this point.
Players to watch:
Diego Forlan, Uruguay
Forlan has been one of two attacking weapons La Celeste has relied upon in the tournament, and with Suarez suspended, even more responsibility will fall on his shoulders. Forlan possesses a powerful shot from distance, making him a huge threat on free kicks inside 35 yards. Forlan is also dynamic from the run of play, so the Dutch will need to account for him at all times.
Diego Perez, Uruguay
Perez has been highly effective in protecting Uruguay's back line during the tournament. Given the injuries and suspensions the team has suffered, he'll need to be at his midfield-destroying best Tuesday. He has also proved adept at feeding Forlan into space on the counter, but in Suarez's absence, Perez will need to make sure he gets other attackers involved as well.
Diego Godin, Uruguay
The loss of Lugano is a massive blow, but it's one that is tempered by the expected return of Godin from a thigh injury that sidelined him for the quarterfinal. Godin will likely be tasked with marking Dutch forward Robin Van Persie, and he'll also need to provide leadership in Lugano's absence.
Wesley Sneijder, Netherlands
Sneijder is the attacking engine that makes the Oranje go. His incisive passes over both short and long distances are counted on to set the table for the likes of Robben, Kuyt and Van Persie. Sneijder is also plenty capable of scoring goals on his own, as evidenced by his four tallies so far. If the Netherlands is to break down Uruguay's defense, Sneijder's guile will be one of the prime ingredients.
John Heitinga, Netherlands
While Forlan is one of those players who drifts all over the field, Heitinga will be the man whose primary task is to keep the Uruguayan in check. The Dutch defender has pace and is solid on the ball, but given Forlan's unpredictability, Heitinga's powers of concentration will be put to the test.
Arjen Robben, Netherlands
While Sneijder is the team's attacking fulcrum, Robben is counted on to provide the unexpected bit of magic by running at defenders. He prefers to line up on the right and then cut inside onto his favored left foot and have a crack at goal. Everyone in the stadium knows it's coming, but it remains difficult to stop.
What we can expect:
With Uruguay shorthanded, look for the team to adopt even more of a hit-and-run approach, with Perez and midfield running mate Egidio Arevalo doing what they can to spoil the Netherlands' attacks. With Suarez out, someone will have to step up to take some of the attacking burden off Forlan. This means more will be needed out of Edinson Cavani, who has been largely disappointing, as well as quarterfinal hero Sebastian Abreu.
The Dutch will likely have much more of the ball than they did in their quarterfinal win over Brazil, but they'll need to exhibit patience in attack against an organized and physical Uruguay defense. It's also expected that whoever replaces Fucile on the left side of the Uruguay defense, be it Alvaro Pereira or Martin Caceres, will be tested often by Robben.
The Dutch have nearly everything going for them in this match, especially now that Van Persie and Mathijsen have been cleared to play after recovering from arm and knee injuries, respectively. Granted, the suspensions of De Jong and Van Der Wiel are problematic, but such is the depth of this Dutch squad that it should be able to cope. The same can't be said for Uruguay, with the loss of Suarez looming especially large.
Both teams will have loads of self-confidence after the quarterfinals, but Uruguay can be forgiven for thinking destiny is on its side. La Celeste clearly caught a miracle against Ghana courtesy of Asamoah Gyan's late missed penalty. Such luck tends to breed loads of confidence, regardless of the circumstances.
About the only thing working against the Dutch is overconfidence and their history of self-destructing. But manager Bert Van Marwijk appears to have tamped down any potential rifts, allowing the team's considerable talent to step to the fore.
Who will win:
Uruguay has enjoyed a stellar run to the semifinals, but this is where the dream will end. Under the best of circumstances, La Celeste would have struggled to cope with the Dutch, but given how many key pieces won't be available for Uruguay, there just doesn't seem to be any way for the South Americans to come out on top. It's always possible that Forlan will have one of those stellar days, but a more likely outcome is for the Netherlands to take this match 3-1, setting up an all-European final.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.