FOUR weeks before the game, Luis Suarez was photographed in a wheelchair, one leg extended, fixed in its position but looking awfully precarious, begins Aidan Smith.
From the ginger expression of Suarez and the mild terror on the faces of the medics, you were led to believe that, if the leg moved, so too would Uruguay. All of it, with every prospect of the country toppling right into the River Plate. But was the photo a con trick?
Con trick No.2 might have been Edinson Cavani’s beard. If beards could talk this one seemed to be saying: “See me, see how thin and neat and sculpted I am? Eduardo Scissorhands couldn’t achieve such a finish. This is the finish of a man – my master – who plays for a super-rich club in a dead league, a playboy in Paris who’s opted for the easy life. This is the beard of a player who absolutely does not track back. No no no, jamas – never.” Well, actually, Cavani does.
Con trick No.3? Losing the first game to Costa Rica, maybe, and this could go on and on. Perhaps Egidio Arevalo, an unsung midfielder like the other three, went around before the game telling anyone from England who asked that his nickname El Cacha meant “the petal of a daisy” when in fact it was “the handle of a knife”. But the truth is Roy Hodgson and his players weren’t conned by Uruguay, and nor did they they underestimate their opponents. El Cacha and his small, compact, desperado mates tackled with incisiveness, like they had knives on their boots. Or Cavani’s beard-trimmers. Or indeed Suarez’s surgeon’s scalpels. The leg opened at the knee was the left – not the one used to fire home the winner but the one that almost buckled under him twice mere seconds before. El Pistolero has scored many better goals but as long as he plays none will be more remarkable.
There may be consolation in being beaten by a hospital-defying goal scored by the world’s most cunning, most gambling, most sleekit striker but that is all there is. England weren’t surprised by Uruguay and, sadly for them and their fans, Thursday’s performance in Sao Paulo contained no surprises of their own. It reminded me of so many England performances down the years – plucky enough and brawny enough, but lacking the boldness, guile and coolness required when the games are cranked up to this intensity.
They have shown boldness in this World Cup, but that was up the Amazon in Manaus. For the Italy match it was as if Hodgson, on a rest-day jungle-trek, had smoked a strange pipe given him by his tour guide and this normally cautious man decided, what the hell, he was going to play Raheem Sterling in the middle. The ploy worked, although England lost. The praise which followed was slightly over the top given the result and how the team clearly lacked the wit to break down the Italians in the last half-hour. But everyone bought into the idea of the all-new expansive England and the Liverpool kid as No.10. Sterling, who doesn’t seem to be this month’s Andros Townsend or this year’s Theo Walcott, was their best player on the night.
The only problem – and it was one which grew and grew in the manner of English obsessions over individuals, usually the one on all the posters – was Wayne Rooney. He’d played poorly on the left, a position he doesn’t like. A campaign began to bring him in from the flank, presenting Hodgson with two options: Drop Rooney (maybe for Adam Lallana) or put him in the middle and move Sterling. The manager opted for the latter, undoing a lot of the good of Manaus. Rooney’s supporters thought he had a fine game, I didn’t. He moves slower now, which made him easier for Arevalo to track. Sterling would have been more of a handful, although I’m not suggesting a 19-year-old could have turned the game against such streetwise opponents, his own ineffectual showing being proof he’s still learning.
Steven Gerrard has learned all he can about international football and seems set to retire from England duty after a World Cup in which he’d hoped to have made a bigger personal impact. Rooney, who, at one time, seemed to have it all, should have moved from Manchester United to a different football culture – one that places less emphasis on celebrity and more on work ethic and game intelligence – rather than stay in his comfort-zone acquiring ever-fatter wage cheques. Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Jordan Henderson all have the chance to continue their studies in next season’s Champions League and you hope they were paying attention to the lessons in concentration and decision-making that have been available to them in Brazil.
Can Danny Welbeck improve as a goal-shy non-striker who certainly runs about? I’m not sure.
Leighton Baines and Phil Jagielka were nervy, prompting nostalgia for Ashley Cole and John Terry, but the latter – not good for tournament togetherness in any case – is no longer indomitable and there’s every chance he, too, would have been left neutralised by Cavani’s disco-sashay dummy, just before the exquisite cross for Suarez’s first goal.
Some English players betrayed the gulf between the Premier League and grown-up international football. Some will be able to lessen it but others will not. Who, apart from the Chelsea old guard, did Hodgson not pick for his squad? No one. His pool from the so-called best league in the world remains limited, with no sign yet of budding English talent emerging from Stamford Bridge or the Etihad, home of the champions. So what of the manager? He went kind of crazy in the jungle but Thursday brought caution and compromise. He tried to accommodate all his No.10s, instead of retaining in the position the young man who just might be the future. This is looking like Hodgson’s version of the Gerrard-Frank Lampard conundrum, which previous managers never solved by playing both of them. Giving out prizes to everyone doesn’t produce actual winners.
This was a tough group for a mostly inexperienced team who might always have struggled to contain Cavani and Suarez, maybe not 100 per cent fit but still 100 per cent deadly. But Sao Paulo seemed like a step backwards rather than another tiny one forward.