Rich in talent, uninspiring Uruguay can blame themselves for World Cup slump

AL WAKRAH, Qatar, Dec 2 (Reuters) - With a history of deep World Cup runs and a squad oozing talent and experience, Uruguay's failure to reach the tournament's knockout stages for the first time in two decades was a footballing disaster entirely of their own making.

Champions in 1930 and 1950 and present at 14 World Cups, La Celeste have become almost a permanent fixture in the last 16 or beyond, and by their own admission can have no excuses for Friday's Group H exit.

The hunger and dynamism Uruguay showed in their 2-0 win over Ghana in Al Wakrah was exactly what the World Cup was expecting of them, but it came much too late, with the South Americans paying the heaviest of prices for their failure to score a single goal in their opening two matches.

For a team famous for their big-name forwards, it was the most painful of eliminations, with South Korea beating already-qualified Portugal on Friday to advance from Group H instead, not on points or goal difference, but on goals scored.

The conditions had been ripe for another Uruguayan World Cup streak, with strong momentum from victories in their final four qualifying matches after Diego Alonso took over a year ago and turned around a campaign on the rocks.

His squad was largely injury-free and had an enviable mix of experience and youth, with five players contesting their fourth World Cup, including strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, alongside 13 first-timers, among them Real Madrid's Federico Valverde, Tottenham Hotspur's Rodrigo Bentancur and Liverpool's Darwin Nunez.

Uruguay started awkwardly in Al Rayyan in their opening 0-0 draw with a South Korean side that ambushed them at the start and despite regaining composure and discovering their stride they failed to log a single shot on target.

Portugal applied similar tactics in their 2-0 win in Lusail, hitting Uruguay early on and denying them an opportunity to find rhythm and create chances.

With their backs to the wall and needing a win to go through, Uruguay were a team transformed against Ghana on Friday, with Suarez, Nunez, Facundo Pellistri and Giorgian de Arrascaeta confident and potent in attack.

But for a team with a record of prevailing in late turnarounds, Uruguay might for years to come rue their pedestrian start in Qatar.

"We found our way. We were brave, we had ball possession, we had no fear," Alonso said of Friday's winning exit.

"Of course I would have liked to see this version of Uruguay before, but this is what happened. My players broke their backs, they gave their all."

Reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Angus MacSwan

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.