With Or Without Suarez, Uruguay Should Not Be Feared

The papers have pinned England's World Cup hopes on the outcome of Luis Suarez's fitness battle, but Roy Hodgson's side shouldn't fear their opponents even if the striker returns...

Last Updated: 29/05/14 at 09:43 Post Comment

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If you've read the papers over the past week, you're probably convinced that England's World Cup hopes rest on the outcome of Luis Suarez's fitness race. After Uruguay's team doctor Alberto Pan declared the striker is "evolving well" in his recovery from a knee injury, the English media went into a frenzy. 'Oh no! Suarez says he's fit,' was Wednesday's reaction on the back page of the Daily Mirror, while the Daily Mail ran the more menacing headline: 'I'll be fit to knock you out'.

The brief period of Schadenfreude is over. When the story of Suarez's knee-knack first emerged, England was awash with unapologetic optimism over the forward's potential absence from the World Cup. Even Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard was prepared to put a pin in his teammate's voodoo doll, telling reporters: "From a really selfish point of view it would really help England if he was not available, of course it would."

But the nation's pitiless prayers have not been answered. Suarez is now expected to return for Uruguay's clash against England on June 19, with the two teams priced respectively at 8/5 and 19/10 to triumph in Sao Paulo. That Uruguay are second favourites to win Group D after Italy emphasises the fear of the Suarez factor - it would seem that Roy Hodgson's side simply don't stand a chance if the striker is fit.

That isn't a view shared by Hodgson, however, who has found himself caught in unfamiliar territory of having to talk up England's challenge in Brazil. "Suarez is my player of the year. He's an exceptional player, with exceptional ability," he said. "But he's not alone. He won't have at Uruguay the same players he has around him at Liverpool. So who knows? Maybe he's less effective with Uruguay than for Liverpool. I think it would be a big mistake to get hung up on any individual player no matter how much you respect their ability."

Suarez's record of 38 goals in 77 international caps initially suggests that Hodgson's theory is bunkum. However, delve a little deeper and there is more encouragement for England than first meets the eye. Similar to his poor record for Liverpool against the top teams in the Premier League, Suarez has only managed four goals in 20 appearances against the ten favourites to win the World Cup (having never faced England, Belgium or Portugal), including just two strikes in 12 matches against South American rivals Brazil, Argentina and Colombia. He is clearly a player of enormous talent, but doubts persist over whether he will deliver on the biggest stage.

And then there is the debate over the quality of his teammates. After they finished fourth at World Cup 2010 and won the Copa America a year later, it might seem churlish for Hodgson to question Suarez's supporting cast. But Uruguay are now an ageing team that have spent the last two years treading water. They required a play-off against Jordan to reach the World Cup and suffered embarrassing defeats to Colombia and Bolivia in a turbulent qualifying campaign.

One of Uruguay's leading problems is that they have struggled to maintain a healthy process of renewal, with Oscar Tabarez now in his eighth year in charge and set to be the longest-serving and oldest manager at the tournament. The 67-year-old was named South American Coach Of The Year following the national team's achievements in 2010 and 2011, but faced questions over his future following a run of just two wins in 13 matches from February 2012 to March 2013. Would Hodgson have survived the same?

Uruguay's 23-man squad replicates the manager's endurance. While Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Godin are currently performing at their peak, the team also rely on a number of stalwarts whose stocks are dwindling. Diego Lugano, the captain, is now a free agent after failing to impress at West Brom; Arévalo Ríos and Diego Pérez are no longer uncompromising figures in central midfield, while the trio of Walter Gargano, Alvaro Pereira and Diego Forlan have all been cursed, to varying degrees, by ill-fated spells at Internazionale.

This a side England should respect but not fear, regardless of whether Suarez makes a full recovery by June 19. Without wishing to set Hodgson up for a fall, there is a sense that he is getting off lightly by the bookmakers favouring Uruguay to qualify from the group. They may boast the better tournament record in recent years - and one of the finest players in the world - but that should not worry England to the extent expressed in the media.

Matt Stanger - he's on the Twitter.

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