ALTHOUGH the temperature outside has dropped by a significant margin, there is an area of high pressure centred on yet another England manager. While a long way from portraying traits recognisable in a man under siege, Roy Hodgson refused to shy away yesterday from acknowledging just how much hinges on this afternoon’s Group D clash with Uruguay in Sao Paulo.
Responding to the assertion that this constitutes a big moment in his own itinerant career, the 66-year-old replied: “Of course it is”.
Asked if it is the biggest game in a coaching odyssey that began in Sweden when he was only 39, and includes taking Switzerland to the knock-out stage at USA 94, he added: “I don’t like to go down that route. I’ll say yes or I’ll say no and then I’ll think about something [else]. You know how big a game it is. It’s the World Cup.
“I don’t think anybody goes into a World Cup expecting that every game isn’t going to be a very big game.”
Hodgson then shifted the focus from him and placed the question in the context of England, who, like their opponents, must treat today’s game as the World Cup final before the World Cup final. “We want to stay in the competition,” stressed the manager. “To stay in the competition we’ve got to get results in the next two games.
“No-one’s going to run away from that but we can only work as we work and prepare for it as we prepare for it. Worrying about it is not going to change anything before the game.”
Even in such a sprawling conurbation, there will be few places to hide for Hodgson if his personnel and tactical decisions do not help secure the victory required to re-ignite England’s World Cup flame. The manager’s principal dilemma revolves around the decision over whether or not to play Wayne Rooney. Even if he does line up, which looks likely, the next question is: where? The Manchester United forward looks set to continue his quest to score a first World Cup goal from a more central position, after the storm of debate caused by his contribution when playing out wide in the defeat by Italy at the weekend.
Hodgson was giving little away yesterday prior to training at the barely-finished concrete monolith known as Arena Corinthians. It sits in what is nominally the north-east of a city where a unique form of graffiti known as pixacao decorates the buildings on an endless horizon of high towers.
Both England and Uruguay know that defeat today means the writing will be on the wall for either nation’s World Cup ambitions. The South American side’s hopes have not been helped by the loss of captain Diego Lagano, who has been ruled out with a knee injury. They have also been stung by the defeat by Costa Rica in their own group opener. However, Luis Suarez is also set to step into the fray for the first time in Brazil.
It was not all gloomy news for England yesterday. Following the oppressive humidity of Manaus, they can now look forward to a significant drop in temperature – to as low as 14C, according to some reports – as well as the prospect of rain falling in a city known as Terra da Garoa, or land of drizzle.
England have swapped the rainforest for an urban jungle that is home to more than 20 million people.
They are seeking to avoid being all-but knocked out of the tournament before they have finished the course of malaria tablets dispensed to them last week, prior to the trip to Amazonia. This adventure might lack the intrigue of the Italy clash, but it is plied with abundant significance nevertheless.
“It is knockout football, even though it is the group stage,” noted Hodgson. “It is basically knockout football for a lot of teams. Any team that’s lost its first game is entering a knockout stage, even in the league stage.”
Fighting for their tournament lives is familiar territory for England; they will also feel comfortable because of the expected rain. “Be nice for our Manchester and Liverpool boys, won’t it?” quipped Hodgson, with reference to the forecast for rain. “They will feel at home.”
Also making these players feel as though they have been transported back to the north-west of England is the presence of someone who threatens to deposit a large dark cloud above Hodgson’s head.
Rarely can one player have dominated the thoughts of an opposing team as much as Luis Suarez, the Liverpool team-mate of five of those likely to be in England’s starting line-up. Given his underwhelming performance in the first game versus Italy, Rooney can only wish to be afforded as much respect as England are paying Suarez. Indeed, there is a sense that too much attention is being paid to the player, who is expected to start today, just weeks after undergoing knee surgery.
Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez yesterday accepted that Suarez will not be operating at peak condition, if he plays. “We must consider the probability that he isn’t as well as he was in the Premier League last season,” he said. “Even when not at 100 per cent, he is someone who can give a lot to the team. That is what we are considering now.”
Of course, the focus on Suarez is intensified because he is so familiar to football supporters in Great Britain, whom he has thrilled as well as sometimes appalled with his talent and antics. Tabarez was asked yesterday whether he had felt the need to remind the player about his conduct, following several unsavoury episodes since the last World Cup, when Suarez provoked widespread condemnation for saving a goal-bound effort from Ghana on the line, before wildly celebrating the resultant penalty miss on the sidelines.
There has also been an FA ban for racism and an incident in which he bit the arm of the Chelsea defender, Branislav Ivanovic. “Please remember football is played by humans,” said Tabarez. “We have to accept that sometimes human beings make mistakes.”
While he wasn’t suggesting they were comparable talents, Hodgson drew a comparison between the talismanic qualities Suarez brings to Uruguay and those exerted by Diego Maradona on Napoli in the 1980s.
“A team can be organised or less well organised but the bottom line is always going to be ‘what players have you got, what exceptional players have you got?’ ” said Hodgson. “An exceptional player can lift a team. We saw Maradona do it with Napoli all those years ago. Napoli had never won anything seriously in Italy, then suddenly Maradona pitches up and they become champions and they won the Uefa Cup.”
Asked whether there was a specific plan for defenders who already know Suarez so well, Hodgson simply ventured the need to stay “compact”.
As for his plans for Rooney, who is cast as the other protagonist in an eagerly-awaited clash, Hodgson would not be drawn.
In this mega city, the outcome of the contest could rest on which of these two street-fighters can successfully overcome recent woes.