Versatile Valverde ready to step up for Uruguay on global stage
Federico Valverde is as irreplaceable for Uruguay as he is for Real Madrid and will be central to his country's World Cup hopes as a player with youth and experience on his side in a squad blessed with an abundance of both.
Valverde has won 44 caps since his debut in 2017 after emerging as one of the leaders of a new generation of Uruguay players and featured heavily in their qualifying campaign for Qatar, starting 14 of 18 games while chipping in with two goals.
A defensive midfielder by trade, Valverde is a tireless performer and boasts a gift for reading the game but his biggest strength is versatility. At Real, his position has varied from right back to midfield anchor and playmaker to right winger.
More recently, he has also added goals to his repertoire, seemingly taking Carlo Ancelotti's words to heart after the Real manager joked that he would rip up his coaching badges if Valverde did not find the net at least 10 times this season.
"What surprised me is how little he scores, he only scored one goal last season. I told him that he has a wand of a foot, he has an incredible shot," Ancelotti said.
Valverde had already bagged eight goals in all competitions by the start of November, having never scored more than three times in his previous five seasons in Madrid.
"There were a lot of people close to me who were quite right that I should take advantage of my shot and I'm doing that now and quite enjoying it," Valverde said after scoring in Real's 5-1 thrashing of Celtic in the Champions League.
He played a starring role during Real's successful LaLiga and Champions League campaigns last season, providing the assist for Vinicius Jnr's goal that secured their 14th European crown.
Having carried that stellar form into this season, it would not be surprising to see Valverde deployed in more advanced areas of the pitch for Uruguay in addition to his regular position in the heart of midfield.
He will be pivotal to their hopes in Qatar and eager to make up for lost time having missed out on the final 23-man squad for the 2018 World Cup after making the provisional selection.
Veteran forward Luis Suarez likened his compatriot to his ex-Liverpool team mate Steven Gerrard and while Valverde said the comparison was flattering, he is aiming to make a name for himself at the finals with twice world champions Uruguay.
"It's spectacular when you are compared to such a player, to a star, a world idol... but one always looks out for oneself," Valverde said.
"I also want to leave my name and my mark in the world of football, not just at Madrid but in the national team... We have the dream of winning the World Cup and bringing this gift to the whole country."
Dark horses Uruguay banking on youth and experience
Twice world champions Uruguay were once a dominant force in world football and while their star does not shine as brightly as it once did they can still make plenty of noise in Qatar with their blend of hardened veterans and exuberant youngsters.
Oscar Tabarez's 15-year reign ended in December after four straight defeats in the qualifying campaign, with Diego Alonso turning things around by winning his first four games in charge to seal their World Cup spot.
'La Celeste' may still rely heavily on ageing stalwarts Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Godin but they have emerging talents in Darwin Nunez, Federico Valverde and Rodrigo Bentancur.
"They are players who are at a great world level. They make a difference physically and technically," Suarez told Marca.
"Our squad, a mixture of experience and youth, has a lot of qualities, and that has a big influence on a World Cup."
Alonso, however, is still looking for the right balance between the veterans and youngsters, and has not yet found a system to bring the best out of his talented squad.
Captain and centre back Godin played the most minutes in Uruguay's qualifying campaign but is in the twilight of his career at 38 and missed September's friendlies against Iran and Canada due to injury.
The Suarez-Cavani duo, veterans of three World Cups with 126 international goals between them, has long been a hallmark of Uruguay's attack but Alonso seems to have concluded that he cannot continue to pair the two 35-year-olds together.
Nunez also looks better suited to playing in Uruguay's tried and trusted 4-4-2 alongside either Cavani or Suarez but fielding three in midfield allows Uruguay to play to their strengths, with Matias Vecino anchoring Valverde and Bentancur.
Against Iran, Uruguay conceded the only goal of the game after Alonso took Vecino off and they looked even more vulnerable at the back after dropping the defensive midfielder altogether in their 2-0 win over Canada.
They would have been punished by stronger opposition and will surely face sterner tests in a balanced Group H also comprising Portugal, Ghana and South Korea.
Uruguay beat then-European champions Portugal in Russia in 2018 on the way to the quarter-finals and overcame Ghana and South Korea en route to the last four in 2010 - the furthest they had gone since 1970.
If Alonso can solve the selection dilemmas that flummoxed his predecessor, Uruguay could be well-placed to advance to the knockouts with another deep run a possibility in Qatar.
Uruguay at the World Cup
Following is a statbox on Uruguay
FIFA ranking: 14
Uruguay won the inaugural World Cup in their capital Montevideo in 1930 and lifted it again in 1950 by upsetting hosts Brazil. After failing to qualify for three out of four World Cups between 1994 and 2006 and exiting at the group stage in the other, Uruguay reached the semi-finals in 2010 - the furthest they had gone since 1970. More recently, they lost to Colombia in the last 16 in 2014 and fell to eventual champions France in the quarter-finals in Russia four years ago.
How they qualified:
Uruguay's gruelling 18-round qualification campaign began with long-serving coach Oscar Tabarez in charge and ended under Diego Alonso, who sealed their World Cup place after presiding over four straight wins since taking over in December.
Tabarez was undone by a combination of injuries and a punishing run of fixtures - Uruguay suffered heavy defeats away to Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia in a four-game losing streak before getting back on track under Alonso.
Veteran forward Luis Suarez top-scored with eight goals as Uruguay won eight games and netted 22 times but conceded just as many, finishing third behind Brazil and Argentina.
Uruguay saw off Mexico 3-0, played out a 0-0 draw with the United States and thrashed Panama 5-0 in June to continue their unbeaten run under Alonso. They lost 1-0 against Iran - their first defeat under the new coach - before beating Canada 2-0 in their September friendlies.