Argentina win pre-Olympic tournament but Brazil may be South America's best hope in Tokyo
The only gold medals that Uruguay has accumulated in Olympic history came from men's football, all the way back in 1924 and 1928. For a while they could dream of ending the drought in Tokyo this year.
After miraculous qualification for the decisive second round of the South American Under-23 Championships, they closed their campaign with an emphatic 3-1 win over tournament hosts Colombia.
Uruguay's fate lay in the hands of Argentina, who had already booked a place and did not even have to retain their 100% record to help. Already confirmed as tournament winners, Argentina just needed to avoid defeat and had an additional incentive: A chance to eliminate their opponents, reigning Olympic champions Brazil.
Alas for Uruguay, Matheus Cunha netted twice as the 2016 champions raised their game when it mattered most, cruising to a 3-0 win against an Argentina side without three key players -- all suspended -- two of whom were especially missed.
The star of the tournament was the Brighton-bound attacking midfielder Alexis Mac Allister, who combined often with right-sided striker Julian Alvarez. The pair profited from space opened on the left side by winger Agustin Urzi, and from the physicality of centre-forward Adolfo Gaich, one of those clumsy types who is better than he looks.
Both Urzi and Gaich were missing against Brazil and their absence hurt an Argentina side that had scored 14 goals in the previous six games, with Mac Allister crowded out. At the other end, meanwhile, Fernando Batista's defence looked uncomfortable -- not for the first time in the tournament -- when put under pressure.
Argentina youth teams have experienced a dreadful few years, failing to develop players for the senior squad, so while winning this championship is a step in the right direction and the likes of Mac Allister and Alvarez would seem set for long international careers, issues remain.
It is some time since the country has produced a world-class centre-back. There have been hopes that Nehuen Perez, captain of this side, might be the solution, but his performance against Brazil, might lead to a rethink.
The outcome of the game was not in doubt from the moment Brazil converted their first chance in the 13th minute; Paulinho sliding home after latching on to a clever chip over the defensive line from Pedrinho. With Argentina obliged to chase the game, their defenders' lack of pace and quality was exposed, and rangy centre-forward Cunha led Perez a merry dance.
It might be that Brazil finally ran into perfect opponents -- most teams have sat back and frustrated them, whereas Argentina gave them more space -- but a change made by coach Andres Jardine also clearly worked.
Having operated previously with two wingers hugging the touchline, both playing on their "wrong" flank and obliged to cut inside -- slowing down the rhythm as a result -- this time the wings were left for attacking full-backs, with the result that moves flowed much better. Cunha finished the tournament as top scorer, Paulinho emerged as a direct attacking weapon and Lyon-bound Bruno Guimaraes organised well from central midfield.
Brazil, then, came good at the end and made sure of their presence in Tokyo. But the lines between success and failure can be thin, as Uruguay are well aware after spurning a golden chance at the end of Thursday's 1-1 draw with Brazil.
LAFC striker Diego Rossi was one-on-one with goalkeeper Ivan and, had he scored, nothing Brazil did against Argentina would have mattered: Argentina and Uruguay would be travelling to Tokyo. But Rossi's shot was saved, meaning Argentina and Brazil will go for gold this summer.