Copa America: Cavani and Suarez ready for one more act of defiance

By Sports Desk June 12, 2021

There are aspects to the Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez of 2021 that make them wonderfully reflective of the Uruguay national team.

Impassioned? Yes. Belligerent? Certainly. A footballing pedigree to rival the best in the world? Absolutely.

What about quality? After all those years, are they still match-winners, entertainers, undimmed by the passing of time? Of course they are. Just ask Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona.

Last August, Suarez was informed by new Barca coach Ronald Koeman that he would not be in his plans at Camp Nou. Too old to be relied upon, too expensive to bench seemed to be the feeling. Regardless, the Catalans reportedly had a list of teams to whom they would not sell Suarez for fear of the deal coming back to haunt them, a list that, apparently, inexplicably, did not include Atletico Madrid. He duly went to the capital on a two-year deal.

Likewise, Cavani seemed to be offloaded all too readily by PSG, who had just lost the Champions League final to Bayern Munich and appeared eager to freshen things up without their record goalscorer. Manchester United were, eventually, the team to gamble on the striker, who joined on a one-year deal with an option for another in October, by which time the Red Devils had failed to sign top target Jadon Sancho and been linked with several other alternatives.

Both players, then, had a point to prove. Boy, did they prove it.

 

Suarez scored twice and set up another on his LaLiga debut for Atleti in a 6-1 win over Granada in September. He then scored three times for Uruguay in the October international break, and again in the 3-0 win at Colombia in November.

From December 19 to February 8, Suarez scored 11 goals in nine league games, including three braces in a run of four matches. He would end the season with winners against Osasuna and Real Valladolid, his 21 goals overall securing 21 points for Atleti throughout the campaign, the most of any player in the competition. And, of course, he won the title, for the fifth time in seven seasons.

Not that such a contribution should really have been in doubt. While he may no longer be quite the all-round dynamo of his Liverpool and early Barca days, his ruthlessness in the opposition box has scarcely diminished; since 2011-12, only Lionel Messi (492) and Cristiano Ronaldo (411) have been directly involved in more goals in Europe's top five leagues than Suarez (325).

 

Unlike his international team-mate, Cavani ended the club season empty-handed, despite scoring United's goal in the Europa League final with Villarreal, which they lost on penalties. Still, few could argue Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's decision to sign him was a mistake.

Cavani did not play a full league game until December 29, and he served a three-game domestic ban for a social media post deemed racist by the Football Association, a decision decried as culturally insensitive in Uruguay. He still ended 2020-21 with 17 goals and five assists at a rate of one goal every 128 minutes, the best return of any United player. He also became the third Red Devil to score 10 or more Premier League goals in a single season in which he was 33 or older at the start (also Teddy Sheringham in 2000-01 and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2016-17), and he equalled the record of five substitute goals over a whole campaign held by Javier Hernandez (2010-11) and Solskjaer (1998-99).

In the Europa League last-four tie against Roma, Cavani became the first player to score at least twice in each leg of a major European semi-final since 1986, when Klaus Allofs did so for Cologne against KSV Waregem. He was also the oldest player to score twice and assist twice in a Champions League or Europa League match, at 34 years and 74 days old. No wonder Solskjaer was so desperate to see him accept the one-year extension to his contract, and was presumably so relieved when he did.

Cavani and Suarez finished 2020-21 on 22 and 24 direct goal involvements, respectively. Among South America players, only Messi (50), Luis Muriel (36), Duvan Zapata  (31), Lautaro Martinez (26) and Neymar (25) had more.

 

So they come, then, to the Copa America, as two of the remaining members of that squad that lifted the trophy in 2011. They have the form, and undoubtedly the pedigree; they are Uruguay's all-time leading goalscorers, Suarez on 63 and Cavani 51.

And yet Uruguay are often consigned to the also-rans when it comes to tournament predictions. While they have waited a decade to lift the trophy, they are the most successful team in the competition's history, with the most appearances (45) and titles (15), yet few will look beyond emergency hosts Brazil and Argentina as favourites or Chile and Colombia as outside bets.

Perhaps the problem lies in a perception of bluntness around Uruguay's play, far removed from the ideals of jogo bonito. Despite holding the most Copa America titles, Uruguay boast a worse goal-per-game average (2.02) at the tournament than Argentina or Brazil; somewhat fittingly, their last triumph a decade ago came in the worst finals for goalscoring (54 in 26, or 2.08 per match) since 1922 (22 in 11, or 2.00 per match). Oscar Tabarez's men have also gone three games without a goal since a 3-0 win over Colombia last November.

If only they had a couple of star strikers who have spent the past year defying the doubters...

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