World Cup Group D | Sao Paulo | Thu 19 Jun | 8pm
Last orders, or time for a lock-in…
The World Cup is a brutal beast. You spend four years building state-of-the-art training complexes, conducting root-and-branch investigations into previous failings, and sourcing ergonomic pillows to accrue 0.5% marginal gains – and then you go and narrowly lose the first game. Suddenly, you’re a bad 45 minutes or so away from being as good as out of the tournament.
Having made it to the last 16 in South Africa and the quarter-finals in 2006 with some deeply ordinary sides, it would be galling for England to be ejected from the Brazilian party early with a team that finally seems to possess a little carnival pizzazz. Daniel Sturridge’s finishing, Raheem Sterling’s nifty jigging, Jordan Henderson and Danny Welbeck’s relentless hustle, Ross Barkley’s brio-packed cameo: England’s performance in defeat against Italy was superior to most of the matches they have actually won in recent tournaments. They were simply outdone by an Azzurri that passed the ball outstandingly and finished clinically, epitomised by the peerless Andrea Pirlo.
Uruguay’s defeat to Costa Rica was an entirely different animal: it was an embarrassment. Having blown their chances to go 2-0 up in the first half, they were awful in the second. Costa Rica deserved credit, of course – and they may too beat England – but the Celeste’s lack of discipline, summed up by Maxi Pereira’s shameful dismissal towards the end, must be a major worry for gaffer Oscar Tabarez. At the moment, his team resemble the outfit that struggled to qualify for this tournament far more than the one that bustled to the semi-finals four years ago.
Can the Three Lions do it when it really counts, however? The apparent fearlessness of their play against Italy certainly seems to suggest they can, and they’re talking the talk too – although it’s a bit rich to hear Sturridge suggest that England “don’t fear” Luis Suarez, a man that he’s spent an entire season eulogising as the absolute terror we all know he is.
But words count for nought in the heat of battle, and England’s recent history suggests that when the pressure is on at a World Cup, either total capitulation or heroic defeat are the default response. If this really is a new-look and fear-free England, now is the time to prove it.
What the local media say
“Suarez knows all the players in the England team; either they are his companions or his rivals. ‘They have defensive weaknesses that we can exploit,’ he says, ‘but I won’t tell the press what they are.’ Uruguay must move forward and use its personality, its team spirit, to win.” - El Pais.
Key battle: Luis Suarez vs Phil Jagielka
Will the Premier League’s most notorious evil foreign comedy villain play? Suarez has merely lurked on the sidelines so far this World Cup, but timing is crucial to great theatre, and the Uruguayan mischief-maker and PFA Player of the Year looks likely to take centre stage against his adopted nation. Few would be surprised should he produce a couple of flashes of half-fit genius to pack half his Liverpool team-mates back off home; the scenario is almost written already in our collective consciousnesses – especially if there is an element of underhand jiggery-pokery.
Therein lies half the problem: Suarez lining up – fully fit or not – will be an early psychological dig to an English side who have either watched him outwit all comers, or helped him to do it, over the last season. Jagielka, a fine defender who has built a solid partnership with Gary Cahill, is a prime example: he was powerless to stop the Uruguayan in Liverpool’s 4-0 rout of Everton back in January, and should Suarez be on top form is unlikely to have an answer. Limit him better than the Celeste’s stoppers can cage England’s lively forward line, however, and he might just have done enough.
Facts and figures
- England are winless against Uruguay at the World Cup. They’ve met twice: in 1954 (Uruguay won 4-2 in the quarter-finals) and 1966 (0-0).
- England recorded their highest ever World Cup pass-completion rate (91%) in the opening match vs Italy (1966-2014).
- England have never conceded 2+ goals in 3 successive World Cup games before.
More FFT Stats Zone facts
England’s newfound confidence to hold out and give them a 2-1 win.