After defeats in their opening matches, England and Uruguay now meet in Sao Palo on Thursday in a make-or-break contest for both teams’ World Cup hopes.
Unlike their opponents, at least for England there were some positives to take from their debut in the competition. The pace and vitality that the emergence of several young players has bought to an England squad that has disappointed at the top level in recent years was in full evidence. Raheem Sterling was lively throughout and the teenager showed admirable fearlessness on the big stage to repeatedly trouble a pedestrian Italian defense. Sterling’s Liverpool teammate Daniel Sturridge did similar and backed up his fine Premier League season by getting England’s equalizer before half-time in a 2-1 defeat in Manaus and leading the line well throughout.
It is no exaggeration to say that it was as encouraging a performance in a major tournament for England 10 years -- since a teenage Wayne Rooney burst onto the scene and threatened to run rampant en route to England glory in Euro 2004. There was almost a Shakespearean quality then to the fact that against Italy, among all the energy surrounding him, Rooney looked so out of place, aged far beyond his 28 years.
The Manchester United forward supplied a quality cross for Sturridge to score, but did little else of note in a positive sense. After much conjecture about his role before the tournament, Roy Hodgson selected him in a left-wing position that he has made clear in the past is far from his favorite. And it showed in Manaus. Time and again Italy attacked down England’s left, with right-back Matteo Darmian getting forward to support Antonio Candreva and repeatedly leaving Leighton Baines helpless with Rooney failing to track back. There was no surprise when the cross for Italy’s winner came from that side as Baines looked on in vain for the help that never arrived. That Rooney later missed a glorious chance to pull England level only heightened the scrutiny on his display.
The word coming out of the England camp is that Rooney will be restored to a more familiar position behind Sturridge on Wednesday. He needs to repay that faith by finding some of the exuberance now on show by many of his teammates. Certainly, if he can and Sterling and Sturridge can repeat their liveliness then there is every reason to believe that England can cause Uruguay ample problems.
Uruguay’s defense was a disaster in their shock 3-1 defeat to Costa Rica. Diego Lugano looked every day of his 33 years -- notably when Marcos Urena simply breezed past him to score Costa Rica’s third goal -- and generally showed why he spent much of last season on the bench for Premier League strugglers West Brom. It may be an unintended boost then that Lugano has been ruled out of the England clash with a knee injury. Neither of coach Oscar Washington Tabarez’s options to replace him are ideal, however. Either 19-year-old Jose Gimenez, with just six caps to his name, could come in or Matin Caceres, poor at left-back against Costa Rica, could move across.
There was undoubtedly surprise at just how brittle the semifinalists in 2010 were in their opening game, yet it was a performance that reinforced the notion that this Uruguay team is largely past its peak. The exception to that, of course, is up front. A front two of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez is as good as any team in the whole tournament can offer up. On form, the duo is certainly capable of leading an otherwise average team to the latter stages. But that is not currently the case. Despite netting from the penalty spot, Cavani -- as he did in both legs of Paris Saint-Germain’s quarterfinal against Chelsea -- failed to show the deadliness in front of goal that led him to score 78 Serie A goals in three seasons for Napoli.
And then there is Suarez. After an operation on his knee less than a month ago, Suarez repeatedly insisted that he would be at his best for the tournament. But that feels more out of hope than realism. The Liverpool striker, who scored 31 Premier League goals last season, took his place on the bench against Costa Rica, but the fact that he wasn’t called upon despite Uruguay going behind did not reflect well on his level of fitness.
Suarez has declared himself “100 percent fit” to take on England and he could well start such is the desperation of Uruguay’s unexpected predicament. If he and Cavani are sharp then their movement could certainly trouble England’s defense, which is not as solid as it has been in recent tournaments. That looks unlikely, however. And without the threat the pair provide on the break, Uruguay’s defense will be put under more pressure by the pace England can now offer up than they will likely be able to resist.
Cruelly for one of the world’s best players, it could well be that Uruguay’s World Cup is over before Suarez has even had the chance to get going.
Prediction: England 2-1 Uruguay
Betting odds: (bovada.lv)
England win: 23/20
Uruguay win: 47/20
When and where: The 2014 World Cup Group D match will kick off from the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo at 3 p.m. ET.