Uruguay’s footballing heritage is rich in exploits in the first half of the 20th century when the nation of two million won the Olympic gold medal twice and the World Cup twice.

Still one of the smallest nations with a population of 3.4 million, Uruguay have become play-off specialists in the 21st century with a third in succession against Costa Rica this Saturday and next Wednesday.

The previous ones were played against Australia before the Australians joined the Asian confederation and the play-off berth was passed to the CONCACAF.

Uruguay won the first in 2001 convincingly, beating Australia 3-0 at home for a 3-1 aggregate victory to go through to the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.

Australia got their revenge four years later under coach Guus Hiddink, progressing to the 2006 finals in Germany by winning on penalties after each won their home leg 1-0.

Uruguay are favourites again to beat Costa Rica with a quality strike force of Luis Suarez of Ajax Amsterdam and Diego Forlan of Atletico Madrid.

However, Uruguay struggled and failed to break down a defensive Argentina at the Centenario in September, going down 1-0 and seeing Diego Maradona’s team reach the 2010 finals while they went into the play-off.

The failings were in midfield where Argentina’s Juan Sebastian Veron largely dictated play.

Uruguay had a few half chances but the strikers were mostly kept out of the box where Suarez can be lethal as he showed in the wins over Colombia and Ecuador that had revived the Uruguayans’ hopes.

Coach Oscar Washington Tabarez had two key defenders suspended for the first leg in San Jose in Andres Scotti and Martin Caceres.

They also had to find the right place to prepare for the synthetic surface at the Saprissa stadium, referred to by a Uruguayan website as “a pretend pitch”, choosing a similar pitch in Guatemala.

A surprise omission in the Uruguay squad, at least for Argentinian observers, was striker Santiago Silva, top scorer in the Argentine championship with title-chasing Banfield.

Silva and Sebastian Fernandez, who does have a place in Tabarez’s squad, have forged a fine strike partnership that could carry Banfield to their first trophy.

Another Uruguayan central striker, Joaquin Boghossian, has emerged at Newell’s Old Boys, also leading candidates for the Argentinian title.

But Tabarez does not appear to be looking for more target men. He has veteran Sebastian Abreu in his squad but prefers not start with a centre-forward.

However, an excellent addition to the squad and a definite nod to the future was the inclusion of talented 20-year-old midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro of champions Nacional.

Lodeiro cut his international teeth as captain of Uruguay’s team that reached the second round of the Under-20 World Youth Cup in Egypt before losing to Brazil in October.

Having played a key role in Nacional’s victory over Defensor Sporting in the 2008-09 season finals, Lodeiro came back from Egypt to inspire his club to the top of the Uruguayan opening championship after a shaky start.