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Tom Robinson is back to introduce us to some of the best young players from the Primera Division de Uruguay.
Uruguay has an illustrious reputation on the international scene but, sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina, their domestic league can often be easily overlooked. The duopoly of Peñarol and Nacional dominates the local scene, while the rest of the 16-team Primera fight it out for an opportunity at disrupting the apple cart.
That apple cart wasn’t so much disrupted but completely smashed to pieces and sold for firewood this season as minnows Plaza Colonia won the Clausura – the first title in their 99 year history. Unsurprisingly dubbed the Uruguayan Leicester City, the Patas Blancas were unable to overcome Apertura victors Peñarol to be crowned overall champions but nevertheless represent a remarkable triumph for a club that was bottom of the second division a year and a half ago.
Boasting the squad with the youngest average age (23.7), Plaza Colonia’s success also highlights the wide spread of young talent that can be found in the Uruguayan Primera.
Given that the country has a population of around 3 million, prospects are exposed to first team football early, allowing them to develop and gain valuable experience before they make the inevitable move abroad. It’s no surprise that scouts are increasingly monitoring the league in search of the next Suarez, Cavani or Gimenez – especially as they are often a fraction of the price of their Brazilian or Argentinian counterparts.
So which players have made an impression this season and are worth keeping an eye on?
A key figure in Plaza Colonia’s promotion and subsequent title win was rapid forward Dibble. If Plaza Colonia are the Leicester of Uruguay then Dibble can only be the Charrua Jamie Vardy. Although not as prolific, Dibble’s acceleration and ability to surge past players made him a revelation in his maiden Primera season. Dibble almost gave up on football at 18 and was working at a construction site before giving it one last shot at his hometown club and, under the tutelage of Eduardo Espinel, he hasn’t looked back since.
Former U17 captain Saracchi has been one of the few bright lights in a fairly dismal campaign for Danubio. Still just 18, the left-sided midfielder has been a regular for la Franja making 30 appearances, the majority of which as a starter and was called up to the Uruguay squad for the U20 World Cup last year. Having watched him in person, Saracchi, who can also play at full back, is excellent at finding space and making things happen, even in a struggling side. Both his vision and crossing are also strong areas of his game, although his finishing could be improved. Along with fellow exciting prospect Joaquin ‘Pajarito’ Ardaiz, Saracchi will hope to follow in the footsteps of former Danubio alumni such as Edinson Cavani and Jose Maria Gimenez.
The 19-year-old striker is the latest prospect to emerge from the Defensor Sporting conveyor belt that has recently produced Diego Rolan, Mauricio Lemos, Giorgian de Arrascaeta, Mauro Arambarri and Brian Lozano to name but a few. In his debut season for Defensor barrel-chested Gomez has netted 14 times in 21 games, including a memorable four goal haul against El Tanque Sisley. Quick, powerful and built like a bull, there are already a number of clubs paying close attention to Gomez.
Since winning the Golden Glove at the U20 Sudamericano last year, Guruceaga has continued his rise to prominence by becoming the undisputed number one at boyhood club Penarol. Now 21, the tall, physically imposing keeper played every single minute of the Manyas’ 50th league title and enhanced his reputation as one of the most promising goalkeepers in world football. Admittedly, he did endure a shaky patch during the first half of the Clausura but, following the Libertadores exit, regained his confidence and finished the season in strong form. Unsurprisingly, Guruceaga has been linked with a whole host of clubs including the likes of Juventus and it won’t be long before he is putting pressure on Fernando Muslera for a place in the Uruguay national team. Guruceaga also featured in our Talent Radar 100 to Watch in 2016.
While star striker Junior Arias has been grabbing all the headlines for his goal-scoring exploits with newly-promoted Liverpool, there have been noteworthy performances from a number of other young talents. Chief among those is 19-year-old midfielder Nicolas de la Cruz. The younger brother of ex-River midfielder Carlos Sanchez, de la Cruz was one of the revelations of U20 Libertadores, scoring four goals as Liverpool finished as runners up. He’s also racked up 17 appearances for the Negriazules first team and has captained the U20 national team. One to watch.
18-year-old fullback Agustin Sant’Anna is one of the most highly regarded young defenders in the Primera after an impressive debut season with Cerro. Despite playing as a midfielder when he was younger, Sant’Anna settled as a dynamic right back who likes to get forward but is also tenacious in defence. The youngest member of a squad that punched above its weight this season, the young defender made 20 starts and chipped in with two goals. These performances have seen him called up to the U20s and have drawn the interest of Nacional, who are expected to make a move for him this summer.
Expectation has been high ever since Schiappacasse made his Primera division debut at the age of 16. It only took him four more games until he scored his first goal, a well-taken finish against El Tanque Sisley in a comprehensive 4-0 victory. While Malaga-bound Michael Santos has been the main goalscorer at River, Schiappacasse has still seen plenty of action this season, both in the league and the Libertadores, and has added another three goals to his steadily growing tally. Possessing great movement and a real eye for goal, Atletico Madrid recognised his talents after his prolific exploits with the Uruguay U17s and snapped him up for €1.5mil when he was just 15. He is due to join up with compatriots Gimenez and Velazquez in the Spanish capital this summer.
While star striker Nico Lopez (too old for this list) and precocious wonderkid Rodrigo Amaral are the standout young talents for el Bolso, 2016 has also seen the emergence of the unsung Felipe Carballo. The 19-year-old box-to-box midfielder has become a regular in the middle of the park for Nacional and displayed his energy, tackling ability and tidy passing ability. His beautifully struck goal against Defensor Sporting shows that he has a bit of everything and impressed with his performances in Nacional’s run to the Libertadores quarter-finals, despite missing the decisive penalty in the shootout against Boca. We mentioned him in an earlier article as well, after some of his impressive performances in the Copa Libertadores.
The 17-year-old attacking midfielder is arguably the most gifted youngster in the Primera right now, so much so that Real Madrid have already swooped to sign him for €5mil. Valverde was the star of the U17 Sudamericano in 2015 but his seven goals in eight games weren’t enough for Uruguay to qualify for the World Cup. Nevertheless, he had made everyone sit up and take notice. An excellent technician with fantastic dribbling ability, long-distance shooting and incisive passing, Valverde returned to Peñarol and duly helped them to the league title. The sky really is the limit for this superstar in the making.
Honourable mentions must also go to his teammates Nahitan Nandez, a no-nonsense midfielder who has already been called up to the national team, and young strike prospect Diego Rossi.
Although strictly not in the Primera division just yet, Matias Rigoleto has been one of the stars of the second division for league winners Rampla Juniors. The striker, who recently turned 21, scored nine times in 22 appearances for Rampla and has the potential to be a breakthrough star in next season’s Primera. If the examples of Dibble at Plaza Colonia and Arias at Liverpool are anything to go by, then there’s no reason to suggest that Rigoleto won’t be able to make the step up too.
Written by Tom Robinson