England vs Uruguay World Cup 2014: Luis Suarez factor poses England defence their biggest test
Gerrard backs team to score but knows they must cope with his Liverpool team-mate, even if striker is not fully fit
In the tunnel before games, England's Steven Gerrard has never been an enthusiastic greeter of old friends and former team-mates. Not for him the back-slapping or hearty embraces. It tends to be a word for the mascot, then the stare ahead to the pitch and scarcely a glance sideways.
He will be the same towards Luis Suarez tonight, he reflected, in the team hotel on Tuesday, as he cast his mind forward to the game against Uruguay in the Arena Corinthians that looms so large in the mind of the English game. “If I walk past him I will say ‘hello’ and shake his hand but at that moment I am not really looking for friends or team-mates. He knows that once that whistle blows there is no friendship at all between me and Luis Suarez.”
Yet Gerrard talks a lot about Suarez over the course of the conversation. For England’s 34-year-old captain, there is no reluctance to address the issue of the Uruguayan who could wreck the English summer. Suarez is Gerrard’s team-mate, and his friend, and to a great extent how much Suarez plays, and how well, will have the most significant impact on the result today.
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Gerrard is very specific about this. England’s attack, he says, will score goals. “For me, the key in this game is how we defend because Uruguay’s strengths are their front players. [Edinson] Cavani, Suarez, [Diego] Forlan, [Gaston] Ramirez. They are the key players who can hurt this England team.
“I know what is going to happen [for England] going forward. That for me is a gimme with the attacking talent we have in this group. I believe the confidence from our attacking play against Italy will cause our next two opponents endless problems. But it is no good us being really good going forward on the break if we can’t defend properly.”
How to defend against Suarez, the man with as many goals at international level, 39, as Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi? This is the striker who has proven so hard to tame for so many Premier League defences on his way to becoming the runaway top goalscorer over the season. Against an England defence that so far has not looked the equal of those at previous World Cup finals.
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The decision not to send him on against Costa Rica has baffled everyone, including the England camp. Suarez cannot be at the “100 per cent” fitness he claims. From their own communication, Gerrard is convinced that Suarez will play but he has been given few clues as to how strong the striker really is, beyond the usual friendly goading via text message. The assumption is that he will have to play at some point, and much will depend on how they deal with the best he has.
England manager Roy Hodgson described Suarez as the kind of forward who “does all the things you want a top player to do”. “All we can do is make certain our defence is compact and we make it difficult for him in terms of not giving him space and the chance to do the things he wants to do.”
With Suarez on the pitch, Uruguay are a different proposition, in spite of all the respectful nods in the direction of the supporting case. “Football is about footballers at the end of the day,” Hodgson said. “A team can be organised or less well organised but the bottom line is always going to be, ‘What exceptional players have you got?’ An exceptional player can lift a team.
“We saw Maradona do it with Napoli all those years ago. Napoli had never won anything serious in Italy then suddenly Maradona pitches up and they become champions and win the Uefa Cup.
Captain Steven Gerrard (front) trains with England “We’re aware that one player can be very important but, as has rightly been said, it is not as if we’re going into the unknown. We know how good he is. We know what he can do and our players will have to make certain, like they do when they play against Liverpool, that they deal with it.”
Gerrard makes the reasonable point that Uruguay find themselves in a worse situation one game in. They have lost to Costa Rica, ranked 28th in the world by Fifa. England have lost to Italy, four times winners of the World Cup, runners-up at Euro 2012, Fifa ranking ninth. “People talk about how strong Italy are defensively, that it is their main strength,” Gerrard said, “and we caused them endless problems throughout the game.
“Uruguay and Costa Rica are not as good defensively as Italy so we have got to have the belief we can get maximum points off both sides. But we have got to go and do it. It’s a make-or-break situation. I am hoping that’s when we perform at our best.”
It would not be a stretch of the imagination to say that Suarez’s motivation is in part fuelled by what he sees as two injustices at the hands of the English Football Association. He eventually accepted his punishments for the Patrice Evra and Branislav Ivanovic episodes but he never set aside his indignation. He is back in South America now and this is a personal issue for him as well as a question of carrying a large share of his country’s hopes.
It will not be the full Suarez whom England face today, but even a half-fit Suarez, without a game in five weeks, stoked up on patriotic fervour and with a score to settle, could be enough.
But he is not the only one with a point to prove. “My time is running out as an England player,” Gerrard said. “I want to try to grasp as many good memories as I can.” He knows this game will not be all about him, but a large part of it is about stopping Suarez.
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