For England, and Roy Hodgson, the World Cup now gets very real. Today, for the first time since qualification was confirmed on October 15, 2013, it can be taken away from them.
There is a permutation of results in Group D that would see England removed from meaningful competition by 3pm, local time, tomorrow.
Another sequence would make progress a possibility in mathematical terms alone. Lose to Uruguay and, if Italy and Costa Rica draw, England are out. Lose to Uruguay and, if there is a winner in the other game, England would need to be the first team in the history of the World Cup to go through having been defeated in their opening two games. Even then, it would require a favour from Italy in the last round of group matches.
Knockout football, Hodgson called it, and he is right. From here, any team that lost its opening game cannot afford a second reversal. Even a draw would leave England perilously close to a humiliatingly early return — with Costa Rica able to play for a single point in the final match in Belo Horizonte.
For all the praise afforded Hodgson and his players after a spirited performance in Manaus, the reality is that no margin for error remains.
England are vulnerable: to rotten luck, to random events and in particular to the kind of dark arts Gus Poyet, the Sunderland manager, spoke of when he explained the clash of cultures that will unfold in Sao Paulo.
‘I know that for you a handball on the goal-line is cheating,’ he said. ‘But not for us. It’s part of the game.’ Poyet’s admission suggests that, in Uruguay, the ‘by any means necessary’ speech that Daniel Sturridge gave on Monday would have more sinister meaning.
Sturridge insisted he didn’t mean he would cheat to win. Anyone who has seen Suarez’s tumble against Argentina in the victory that helped secure Uruguay’s play-off place would not be similarly assuaged.
Without doubt, Suarez is a changed man in English football. Like Didier Drogba, Cristiano Ronaldo and many imports to the Premier League, he has discovered that diving is considered one of football’s foulest acts in his adopted home.
If anything, last season, the times he should have had a penalty and was unjustly spurned by the referee must have neared double figures.
At a World Cup, in Uruguay’s colours, it is different. A large number of players here see any form of contact as justification to fall. There is no controversy, no inquest, no consequence for them. Thomas Muller’s theatrics saw Pepe sent off in Germany’s win over Portugal but passed with barely a comment in Brazil. Sao Paulo’s stadium may be the home of a club called Corinthians, but there that spirit ends.
And this is do or die, when Suarez’s almost deranged desire to win takes over. The downside for Uruguay is no different to that for England — the threat is greater, in fact, as they have Italy to play last.
Suarez has been rushed back from injury in what amounts to a rare gamble from coach Oscar Tabarez. England’s hope, therefore, is that another bold forward display succeeds in putting distance between the teams, so one fateful moment cannot influence the outcome. Undoubtedly, Uruguay’s defence is weak. It needs to be hit, and hard, to counter the Suarez effect.
‘We believe Suarez will be back and that will be a big confidence boost for their whole team,’ said Hodgson. ‘I think we’d be very foolish if we started basing our ideas about them on one game against Costa Rica. I think we have got to see beyond that and be ready for a very difficult encounter.
‘There is no doubt Uruguay are different when Suarez is in the team. Football is about the players. A team can be organised or not but the bottom line is always “what players have you got and how many are exceptional?” An exceptional player can lift a team. We saw Diego Maradona do it with Napoli.’
Hodgson added: ‘They had never won anything really in Italy and then suddenly Maradona pitched up and they become champions and won the Uefa Cup. It doesn’t really matter whether you have played against someone or know his game, great players are great players. When you talk about Argentina now it always comes back to Lionel Messi. In every team there is one name that is a bit exceptional.
‘It is not as if we’re going into the unknown, though. We know how good Suarez is. Our players will have to make certain that they deal with him as they do when they play against Liverpool.
‘He’s a front player. He plays all along that line. He makes runs behind defenders, he comes off and gets the ball short. He does all the things you want a top player to do. All we can do is ensure our defence is compact and we don’t give him the space to play as he wants.’
If this is seen as Hodgson reverting to cautious type, he should be indulged. Against all expectation he went to Manaus with a very open mind and an even more open game plan, and while England are likely to field the same attacking team, with perhaps the odd tweak in the positioning, he will win no plaudits this time for an entertaining or encouraging defeat. Uruguay were the last of South America’s qualifiers — needing to win a play-off against Jordan — and looked distinctly unimpressive without Suarez against Costa Rica.
Repeat the level of performance against Italy and England are expected to win. Fail, and the inquest will delve deeper than the general acceptance that it just wasn’t England’s day again.
Hodgson seemed to leave a degree of uncertainty around Rooney when, asked if he might alter his position from wide on the left, he started talking about refusing to say whether he was in or out. Nobody had suggested he might be out. He isn’t, and shouldn’t be, but it indicates his future as a certain starter for England is now up for discussion, behind closed doors as well as in the public arena.
By returning Rooney to the middle, as seems likely, Hodgson is hoping to make a virtue of having England’s leading goalscorer nearer to goal, where he can inflict most damage. He insisted Rooney’s performance in Manaus was not dissected at any great length, suggesting he was happy with what he saw. It would be a ferociously brave decision to ditch Rooney for a match of this significance — and harsh, considering the selfless way he played against Italy. He needs to be given a chance to influence this World Cup as a match-winner, to come to the party as others with his scoring record have done.
The temperature in Sao Paulo will certainly be friendlier to England than the Amazonian heat of Manaus and, bar Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, everyone is fit. Time to deliver is the hoariest old cliche for England at World Cup tournaments, but it is coming round to that moment just the same.
‘We didn’t go all-out attack against Italy and we won’t be saying that against Uruguay, either, but we do have the sort of players that are capable of hurting them,’ said Hodgson (left). ‘I thought we played at a very good pace the other night and I don’t know whether we’re capable of playing much faster than that. We saw that even a top team like Italy was tested by the quality of our attacking play and we’re not going to dispense with any of those weapons.’
Yet, this time, going down fighting won’t be so well received.
O jogo bonito is worthless without its cutting edge. There are a lot of good, attacking teams at this tournament and England need to join them in the second round. This is a match England should win; they can get no further here on looks alone. – Daily Mail