Much has happened in the life of Luis Suárez since his ill-fated decision to sink his teeth into the shoulder of Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini in Natal 19 months ago. Swiftly he was handed down an unprecedented punishment of a four-month ban from all footballing activities, while he was suspended from playing for national team Uruguay for nine competitive matches. Soon he was on the move, too, fulfilling his dream of joining Barcelona.
Since then it has been Suárez’s talent that has captured the headlines. Along with Lionel Messi and Neymar, he has formed the most devastating forward trio the game has ever seen to lead Barcelona to a treble last season and put them on course for an unprecedented repeat this campaign.
And on Friday the final wound of that moment of madness against Italy will be healed when he steps onto the field for Uruguay in a competitive contest for the first time since the 2014 World Cup. Perhaps fittingly, Suárez’s return will come less than two hundred miles down Brazil’s north-east coast from where the lowest point of his career played out.
Adding yet more spice to the occasion, not only will Suárez be back in Brazil, but he will be going head-to-head with the man he has formed such a close and brilliant bond with at Barcelona, Neymar.
“I have a bet with Neymar,” Suárez said in a pre-match press conference. “The winner gets a burger. He is a great team-mate and we always make jokes at Barcelona. But whoever wins this game will be enjoying himself and he who loses will be hearing it from the other.
“Above all, we are teammates and friends. We will both be trying to give our all for our own team and our country. Neymar knows me very well, but I also know him very well. Everything is different on the pitch, though. All rivals know how each opponent plays, but things always pan out differently on the pitch and you have to deal with it.”
Suárez’s ban meant not only was he forced to watch on from the sidelines during last year’s Copa America, but he missed the first four rounds of World Cup qualifying. His team, though, has coped impressively in his absence. Uruguay have won three of their four matches so far, including a 3-0 victory over South American champions Chile last time out. Even with every other team, excluding Brazil, having now played a game more, Uruguay sit second in the 10-team table.
Brazil are two points back and currently occupying fifth place, which would only be good enough for a playoff. Thus, although Dunga’s side have bounced back well from an opening loss to Chile, a win over Uruguay will be keenly sought, particularly with a difficult trip to Paraguay awaiting next Tuesday.
As Brazil fight for vital points, they will be looking for their star man to come to the fore. While Suárez has been able to have no impact on World Cup qualifying so far, Neymar’s has only been minimal. Having missed the first two rounds due to a suspension incurred at the Copa America, the 24-year-old was then short of his scintillating Barcelona best in a 1-1 draw with Argentina and 3-0 win over Peru.
Neymar will surely be encouraged, though, by injury problems that have hit Uruguay’s defense hard, ruling out Atletico Madrid duo Diego Godín and José María Giménez as well as right-back Maxi Pereira.
Prediction: The absence of Godín is a massive loss to Uruguay, with his influence felt at both ends of the pitch. That deficiency should only further encourage Uruguay coach Óscar Washington Tabárez to set up in a defensive formation and look to frustrate Brazil before trying to use the searing pace and masterful runs of Suárez on the break. Uruguay’s strategy could pay dividends, however, although Brazil haven’t yet solved their center-forward issues, the combined quality of Neymar, Douglas Costa, Willian and Hulk could be enough against a makeshift Uruguay backline.
Predicted score: Brazil 2-1 Uruguay
Kickoff time: 8:45 p.m. EDT
TV channel: beIN Sports en Español
Live stream: beIN Sports Connect