Before the start of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying, Uruguay had established themselves as the strongest side in South America, at least based on their results. There's no doubt that Argentina and Brazil have more talent and that they will always have higher ceilings, but Uruguay's place in the CONMEBOL pecking order was basically undisputed.
Uruguay had the highest finish of any South American side at the World Cup, the World Cup Golden Ball winner, a Copa America title, and the most valuable player at the Copa America. They had to go through the hosts, Argentina, to win that Copa America title. By August of 2011, Uruguay had staked their claim as the best team on their continent as definitively as a team can stake that claim.
Fast forward 14 months, and Uruguay is in danger of missing out on an automatic qualifying place in the World Cup. On Tuesday, they face a difficult trip to La Paz without all of Diego Godin, Diego Lugano and Martin Caceres in the back. They sit on 12 points, they could very easily sit in sixth place after Tuesday's action, and they have just one point from their last three matches.
There's no shame in losing to Argentina, but they never looked like they had much of a chance on Friday as they were well and truly steamrolled by Lionel Messi. There's also no shame in losing away to Colombia, but they suffered an even heavier loss in that fixture back in September, falling victim to the Teo, James and Falcao show in a 4-0 defeat.
Diego Forlan, the World Cup Golden Ball winner who scored twice in the Copa America final, looks old. Without him at his best, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani don't look like they're sure what they're supposed to do. Suarez is co-leader atop CONMEBOL's scoring charts with six goals, but four of those goals came in the same game, against an unbelievably poor Chile side. None of Suarez and Cavani's eight combined goals have come on the road or against either of the top teams in qualifying, Colombia and Argentina.
The team has switched between a three and four-man back line, unable to find the right personnel, a problem that won't be aided by their lack of available defenders for Tuesday's match. And if two other defenders weren't also unavailable, Lugano's suspension might have been a blessing. As off the pace as Forlan has been, he's looked young, sharp and lively compared to Uruguay's captain in defense.
There's no obvious solution to what ails Uruguay at the moment, but there's no question that they have more talent than the teams they're battling with for a place in the World Cup. They can't match Argentina's depth and Colombia's starting XI has improved rapidly, but the likes of Chile, Ecuador and Venezuela shouldn't be able to compete at the moment. Even if suspensions cause Uruguay to lose on Tuesday and fall to sixth place, they have more than enough talent to pull themselves into the top four in the second half of qualifying.
However, it may be time for Óscar Tabárez to pull the plug on his aging players. If Lugano and Forlan look old now, they're unlikely to be anywhere near the level required for Uruguay to make another deep World Cup run in a little less than two weeks time. Forlan has moved down a level to the Brasileirao, and he's been solid, but not dominant for Internacional. Lugano is now fourth choice at Paris Saint-Germain, and for good reason.
The longer Tabarez waits to drop his former stars who are obviously past their prime, the more it's going to hurt when Uruguay ultimately disappoints their fans by failing to qualify for the World Cup or crashing out of the competition in the first round.