Football: Suarez centre stage in heavyweight Group D battle
Published on Jun 10, 2014 6:19 AM
RIO DE JANEIRO (REUTERS) - Luis Suarez's spectacular season for Liverpool went a long way to restoring his tarnished image among English fans but the Uruguayan will again be public enemy No. 1 for a game that could decide World Cup Group D.
With England and Italy making it three former world champions in the group and Costa Rica containing enough talent to at least worry their rivals, every match looks enticing and it is a tough call to predict who will go through, let alone find a one-two finishing order.
The fitness or otherwise of Suarez, who underwent keyhole surgery on a knee injury on May 22, could decide whether Uruguay can match their 2010 achievement of reaching the semi-finals.
Suarez was key to their progress in every sense, teaming up impressively with Diego Forlan in attack and preventing a certain defeat by handling Stephen Appiah's header on the line in the last minute of extra-time in their quarter-final classic against Ghana.
Vilified around the world and certainly throughout Africa, Suarez was consequently banned from the semi-finals but returned home to a hero's welcome from his compatriots.
His club persona is similarly schizophrenic with bans for biting and racism and a history of theatrical diving making him an easy target for opposition fans and touchline philosophers while his extraordinary talent, work rate and team ethic make him hugely popular among his own.
This season the talent has overcome the problems and, with his 31 league goals helping Liverpool to their best campaign for years, he was voted England's player of the season both by his fellow professionals and the country's journalists.
Suarez, who scored 11 goals in Uruguay's qualifying campaign, is likely to miss their opener against Costa Rica on Saturday but all the indications are that he will be ready to face England in Sao Paulo on June 19. "You only know for sure as you progress and see how the knee reacts," he said. "When I go on to the pitch I want to go out there ready."
Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez will hope he has enough firepower from Forlan and Edinson Cavani to get off to a winning start against Costa Rica, piling the pressure on the two European heavyweights who also meet on Saturday, in Manaus.
Italy knocked England out of the Euro 2012 quarter-finals on penalties after 120 goalless minutes and this meeting is likely to be a similarly close affair.
Neither team will want to fall off the pace at the first hurdle and with coaches Cesare Prandelli and Roy Hodgson not considered major risk takers, both would probably be happy to settle for a point and take their chances in the next two games.
The heat and humidity of the Amazonian venue is also likely to contribute to a slower-paced game which is probably better suited to an Italian approach centred on the peerless distribution of Andrea Pirlo than England's hard-running style.
Hodgson has pledged to attack although he offered a more revealing caveat when he said: "But we are also going to make it clear to them that they can't go gung-ho at any time.
"At all times you've got to be thinking 'what happens if it doesn't work out, are we protected?'."
England, for once, go in to the tournament with little real expectation from home fans but the pressure is mounting on the Italians after a dire 1-1 draw with Luxembourg last week made it seven games and 10 months without a win.
While it looks a tough group to get through the reward is high for both sides who progress. They each will face one of the top two from Group C - Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast or Japan - with a quarter-final place there for the taking.