In the South American Zone standings in the race to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, all eyes are on the mid-table area. There sit Ecuador and Uruguay, level on 22 points, though La Tricolor’s superior goal difference currently edges them into fourth - the last available direct ticket to Brazilian soil.
With things so close this near to the finish line, the two sides’ upcoming clash in Quito, in the penultimate fixture of the qualifying phase on Friday, has all the makings of a cup final. Despite sitting behind on goal difference, La Celeste have the momentum - their three back-to-back victories outshining the home side’s recently modest form of two points from the last 12.
Optimism is indeed flourishing amongst Los Charrúas, and was further inflated, if possible, by their latest win over Colombia in Montevideo. Cristian Stuani netted the second in the 2-0 victory and, in just his second game for Uruguay in these qualifiers, he has certainly hit the ground running.
“It was incredible to play at the Centenario and the goal made it something truly special. I haven’t stopped smiling. It’s something that you will never forget as a player”, recalled the attacker, almost one month later, in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “The qualifiers are a fantastic experience, one of a kind. Pulling on the national shirt really gets the adrenaline pumping.”
Stuani will turn 27 on 12 October, but his thoughts will only be on national squad which, as he told us, is a fine place to celebrate the landmark: “I felt really welcome in the dressing room. It is a very close group with a great atmosphere. That really helps us to push on towards our goals.”
Taking no chances
Ecuador are next on Uruguay’s hitlist, with the latter aiming to head into their final fixture against already-qualified Argentina with their destiny firmly in their own hands. “We’re coming into the game with growing momentum and we have to go on winning," stated the Espanyol forward.
"We’re going to throw everything we’ve got at it. We’re so close to booking our place. It’s going to be a very, very difficult game, but we’re mentally strong and focussed on the win.”
A good result would ease the pressure on Uruguay, with La Celeste already knowing too well that the Intercontinental Play-offs - the reward for fifth spot - can go any way. Indeed, Uruguay beat Australia to book a place at Korea/Japan 2002 only to lose to the same team on penalties in the battle for a trip to Germany 2006. Four years later, the Uruguayans booked a South Africa 2010 berth at the expense of Costa Rica.
“We hope to avoid a play-off. But if we can't avoid it, we will approach it with strength and determination,” he added. “Emotions run high in those games. Like all Uruguayans, I remember the sheer nervousness going into them.”
Reflecting on those matches, Stuani admitted that it is sometimes more difficult to be in the stands than on the pitch: “Now I know what it’s like to be on the pitch. You feel great passion and excitement, but it’s different. I think you feel the nerves more when you’re watching. When you’re playing it’s different.”
A tale of two coaches
Uruguay manager Tabarez described Stuani as “a very intelligent player with great control”, words that mean a lot. “It makes you so proud to hear those things said about you," he said.
"He’s always watching how we are progressing and knows us very well. El Maestro gives us great confidence because he is an extremely experienced coach. He gives us so much support and I’m sure he’s going to give us the best possible preparation for the coming games and make all the right decisions.”
Stuani stepped into European football in 2008, signing with Reggina Calcio and spending successive loan spells at Albacete, Levante and Racing Santander, before moving to Espanyol in 2012. There, he met another key coach in his career: Javier Aguirre.
The Mexican supremo arrived at the club mid-way through last season, when Los Periquitos were flirting dangerously with the drop. He kept the club up and put it back on its feet, proven by a better start to this campaign.
“He’s a coach who really has an aura and is very experienced," said Stuani, on Aguirre's impact. "He gave me a lot of confidence and continuity, and that’s what I needed to improve. I feel that I have really developed under his guidance and I am really happy.”
Next stop for Stuani? “Brazil. I hope I get there. I’m going to do everything I can.”