World Cup: Tireless Fede Valverde makes dark horses Uruguay contenders
Fede Valverde is one of the most in-form players at the World Cup (Getty)

Uruguay didn’t make qualification for this World Cup easy. South American qualifying began with a run of two wins from their opening seven games and saw them fall to four successive defeats to Brazil, Argentina (twice) and at the high altitudes of La Paz in Bolivia. A single point from five games emboldened the prospect of Uruguay missing the finals for the first time since 2006.

However, when the going got tough, Uruguay got going. They triumphed in all four of their final qualifying matches and finished third in the 10-team group, behind Brazil and Argentina. The two-time world champions are now seen as dark horses on the eve of their opener Group H with South Korea.

In defence, they have the experience of Fernando Muslera, Diego Godin and Martin Caceres — along with La Liga pair Jose Maria Gimenez and Ronald Araujo — and, in attack, they still have their all-time top scorers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani,, who have 125 goals between them for the national team.

Furthermore, Uruguay have five players in Darwin Nunez (23), Maxi Gomez (26), Rodrigo Bentancur (25), Manuel Ugarte (21) and Lucas Torreira (26) who are just entering their prime.

Uruguay were left to sweat on World Cup qualification after poor start (Getty)

Should Uruguay prove successful in Qatar then it’s likely much will depend on Fede Valverde. He is a central midfielder by trade, but Carlo Ancelotti has tended to use Valverde on the right wing for Real Madrid this term, and it has bore fruit.

Ancelotti’s Real Madrid are well stocked in central midfield, even after the summer departure of Casemiro to Manchester United. Aurelien Tchouameni, a €100m signing from Monaco, is quickly proving a fine replacement for the Brazilian, and Valverde has been influential down the right.

The 24-year-old has a bright future in the Real Madrid midfield. The long-standing duo of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are 37 and 32 respectively, and in Valverde, Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga (the latter two are in Qatar with France), Real Madrid have a central trio who could dominate midfields in Europe for years to come.

Valverde's versatility will be key for dark horses Uruguay

For the coming weeks, however, Valverde’s task is to inspire Uruguay to success on the world stage. The head coach Diego Alonso will likely follow Ancelotti and station Valverde on the right of a 4-4-2, but his versatility offers options. If Uruguay need numbers in central midfield, Valverde is able to manoeuvre inside and bolster that area. Alonso can essentially field one player to carry out two roles.

That is, in large part, down to Valverde’s tireless work ethic when out of possession. He is always hassling opponents to recover the ball for his side so they can spring forward quickly. He has won possession the ninth-most times (12) in La Liga this season, all the more impressive given Real Madrid tend to dominate the ball anyway.

The addition of goals to his game this season has seen Valverde’s stock rise further. While previously thought of as primarily a ball-winner, his all-round game has developed superbly, so much so that he has scored six La Liga goals so far this season — making him joint-sixth in La Liga’s scoring charts. In his previous five campaigns in La Liga, Valverde found the back of the net just five times.

Valverde has added goals to his repertoire, scoring six goals in La Liga this season (Getty)

He is also among the fittest players in Qatar. Those not accustomed to seeing Valverde play will be struck by his constant running and energetic movement from first minute to last. Many a Real Madrid fan has quipped that his stamina and athleticism make it seem as though he has three lungs.

In the testing heat of Qatar (Uruguay start their tournament in a 4.00pm kick-off on Thursday) Valverde’s work-rate will be imperative for Uruguay. He is one of the most inform players going into the World Cup having impressed both domestically and in the Champions League and won both competitions with Real Madrid last term.

Uruguay find themselves in one of the more unpredictable groups in Qatar. With four teams from different continents in their group — they face Portugal and Ghana along with South Korea — it’s difficult to predict who will progress to the knockout rounds. Yet, with Valverde in the team, they will fancy their chances of emerging from the group stages and living up to their billing as dark horses.