Buoyed by Saturday's 2-1 win over Ecuador at altitude in Quito, it was an expectant Uruguayan crowd that flocked to the Estadio Centenario last night, hoping for a win over Argentina that would clinch a direct passage to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Yet fans desperate to see La Celeste qualify automatically for the finals for the first time since Italy 1990 were left dejected by a 1-0 reverse that consigned them to a play-off against CONCACAF representatives Costa Rica.
"We're hurting because we let a huge opportunity slip from our grasp. But there's no point crying over spilt milk, we have to move on," said Charrúa coach Oscar Tabarez after his team had been beaten by an Albiceleste side with only one previous away win in South Africa 2010 qualifying. "It was a very even and tight game. We tried, we put in the effort, but things just didn't go right for us and we couldn't cause them problems going forward."
Uruguay, who throughout the campaign were never able to win both games of a qualifying double-header, were certainly not lacking in attacking intent. However, as was the case when dropping home points against Chile, Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil, Tabarez's charges were let down by their finishing.
"You can't talk about whether it's deserved or not," said El Maestro. "Argentina played intelligently, they took their chance and enjoyed a touch of good fortune on the way to the win. We have to look forward and focus on what's coming up."
Targeting Los Ticos
Next up for Uruguay are the qualifying play-offs, a situation they faced in both 2001 and 2005 with mixed results. In the first of these ties, which both came against Australia, La Celeste progressed to Korea/Japan 2002. The second, however, ended in the drama of penalties, with the Socceroos holding their nerve and taking the ticket to Germany 2006.
"Sometimes these situations repeat themselves," said Tabarez, whose team will face Costa Rica, the fourth-placed finishers in North, Central America and Caribbean Zone qualifying. "It's about more than footballing ability and whichever coach is in charge at the time."
Striker Diego Forlan, part of the squad which appeared at the global showpiece in 2002, underlined that "what really matters is that our fate's still in our hands. It hurts because we were so close, but Argentina are a great team and they made the most of their opportunity.
"Nothing's over yet. The preliminary phase is still going for us and we've still got a good chance of qualifying," added the Atletico de Madrid goal-getter, who was paired up front with Ajax's Luis Suarez.
"We mustn't be overconfident or let our heads drop. We need to realise that we're two games away from qualifying and we can do it. Nobody likes being in this position but we've been there before and know how to approach it."
Wise words indeed, and it is this prior experience that may give Los Charrúas' an edge against Costa Rica, who are still reeling from being denied a direct ticket to South Africa 2010 by a USA goal in the fourth minute of injury time. Can Los Ticos bounce back or will Forlan and Co prove too strong? All will be revealed on 18 November.