From the moment that the unravelling of two small pieces of paper at the FIFA World Cup™ Final Draw in December 2013 paired Uruguay with England in a meeting of two Trophy winners, the spotlight has been relentlessly directed at Luis Suarez.
Two days previously, the Liverpool No7 had served up a mesmeric performance under the floodlights of Anfield, mercilessly pulverising Norwich City with four strikes of the highest standard.
On that evening, the Englishmen among his side had watched and supported the Salto native’s exploits gleefully; less than 48 hours later, Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Co were already pondering how the Three Lions would stop a player who troubled the most stubborn of Premier League defences in 2013/14.
Uruguay are a really good side, so we've just got to concentrate and prepare as best we can.
It almost became academic. Mere weeks before a ball was kicked at Brazil 2014, Suarez’s participation was plunged into doubt by a knee operation, and his lack of match fitness forced the La Celeste talisman to frustratingly observe from the bench as Oscar Tabarez’s charges were overturned 3-1 by Costa Rica in their Group D opener.
“If Luis doesn’t play it is obviously a positive, because he is a fantastic player,” Anfield colleague Henderson told FIFA. “But I'm sure he is chomping at the bit and he is doing everything he can to be fit for the game. Uruguay are a really good side as well, so we've just got to concentrate on the next game, recover well and prepare as best we can.”
England’s evolving No14 was a starter in defeat against Italy on Saturday, but insisted that lessons can be learned to take into a meeting with Uruguay: “There are a lot of positives to come out of it, and we have got to stay confident, keep believing and look forward to the next game.”
Sturridge v Suarez in Sao Paulo
With the stakes raised by both sides’ failure to secure points in the competition yet, Suarez has declared himself “100 per cent” available to meet familiar faces in Sao Paulo this Thursday. “I feel really great,” Suarez told FIFA. “I am really motivated to play again. I'm feeling better and stronger than before and ready to try to turn this situation around.”
That determination to rescue the South American champions’ challenge outweighs any desire to impress against the country he calls home for much of the year. The former Ajax man continued: “Obviously it's going to be special because that's where I play. I know all of the players. But the anxiousness to prove myself won't overwhelm me because I play there all year round and I don't have to prove anything to anyone.”
The rhetoric emanating from the opposition camp has underlined the logic that Roy Hodgson’s outfit cannot focus wholly on Suarez, and particularly when Tabarez can field alternative attacking riches. The England manager, meanwhile, is able to harness the other half of the Reds’ ‘SAS’ partnership, Daniel Sturridge, who struck home beautifully in his first FIFA World Cup fixture.
“Whether they have Luis or not, we'll play the same,” added Sturridge. “He’s a world-class player, but we’re facing Uruguay, with [Edinson] Cavani, [Diego] Forlan - a legend – and other players who are very technically gifted and can do a lot of things on a football field. We’re worrying about them as a team, not just about Luis.”
“Knowing” England’s talents was a recurring motif of Suarez’s conversation with FIFA as the striker plots a salvage mission, so perhaps the difference at the Arena Corinthians will have to be decided by something unexpected.