It was supposed to be the first contact, that initial leap from the turf or stretch in the tackle that opened up his left knee only 28 days after keyhole surgery, which would prove whether Luis Suárez was truly ready for competitive action. English hopes had been fuelled by the conviction no player can be fully fit just four weeks after damaging the meniscus in the joint. Even El Pistolero, a forward whose self-confidence rarely wavers, must have wondered just how he would react as the clattering came.
When it did, there was an inevitability as to the identity of the perpetrator. This critical contest was in its infancy, the clock ticking over its first 30 seconds, when Suárez dangled a leg at a loose ball and was buffeted to the turf by Steven Gerrard. The England captain had warned in the buildup that the pair’s club alliance would count for nothing on this stage, their friendship placed on hold while these teams tore at each other in desperation to prolong their involvement at the World Cup. This was supposed to be the early statement of English intent left on Uruguay’s returning icon, a reminder he was in a wheelchair a month ago, and, briefly, Suárez arms did spasm in protest at the non-award of the free-kick. Yet, by the end, the discomfort was all English.
It would be one of the striker’s last touches that will remain seared on this nation’s psyche. A finish so brutal that, even when England’s players awake still numbed back in Rio de Janeiro on Friday, they will still be dizzied by nightmarish memories of the ferocity of this game’s late twist. Fernando Muslera’s punt downfield five minutes from time had been hopeful at best, Edinson Cavani’s jump with Gerrard seeing the Liverpool captain – horribly cruelly if utterly inadvertently – flick on for Suárez to collect in space with the English backline ragged.
The striker’s first touch was true, his legs momentarily hinting at a stagger only while he found his bearings, before he thumped the game’s decisive finish over Joe Hart’s right shoulder from a relatively narrow angle. “If this was a movie, people probably couldn’t have wished for a better storyline,” said Óscar Tabárez, before adding, “at least in Uruguay.”
Suárez, even semi-fit, rarely strayed from being the occasion’s central performer. He had drawn confidence from surviving that first mini-test and bided his time before leaving his own mark on these finals. Sometimes a “genius”, as Gerrard had described the Uruguayan on the eve of this game, does not need to be fully fit to flourish. Six minutes from the interval he proved as much, finding space in the centre of the pitch to flick a pass inside for Nicolás Lodeiro to collect.
While the fluorescent-booted midfielder darted through Gerrard and liberated Cavani, Suárez was drifting – not sprinting but merely ghosting – unchecked into enemy territory unnoticed, timing his run between Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines to perfection to guide a header back and beyond Hart and into the net. He chose to celebrate with Alberto Pan, the team doctor who had overseen his rehabilitation, on the sidelines. La Celeste rejoiced in the medic’s healing powers.
There was culpability in England’s shoddy defending, from being outnumbered and weak in midfield to slack on the flanks and vulnerable in the centre but the brilliance of the delivery and the cuteness of the finish, complete with the accompanying grimace of a smiling assassin, had to be admired.
The striker has made a habit of hitting the ground running after lay-offs. Last autumn, upon his return from a ban for biting Branislav Ivanovic, he had conjured 19 goals in his first 13 games for Liverpool. This is not a player who needs looseners. Fate had almost decreed this would be his night against players he either confronts or plays alongside in the Premier League, his personal motivation very clear. The PFA’s player of the year has long harboured a sense of injustice, rightly or wrongly, at the treatment he has received from the Football Association over those infamous incidents with Ivanovic and Patrice Evra. He will have relished this revenge of sorts.
“I dreamt this,” he said. “I’m enjoying this moment because of all I suffered, the criticism I received. So, there you go.”
His opener was actually his third attempt on target even if it would be his sixth, the winner crunched beyond Hart at the death, that left England crumpled and forlorn. There was precious little indication of rustiness, one attempt dragged wide when clear aside, and, for all that Roy Hodgson suggested his players controlled their tormentor-in-chief effectively for long periods, England quaked in dread whenever he gained possession, the sense of foreboding omnipresent. It was hard to compute he had injured his knee only on 21 May and yet could spread such panic a few weeks later.
Just as significant as the fact that his bite had not been blunted by the untimely lay-off was his ability to stretch England from those set-plays, with Uruguay reliant upon his delivery and their players clearly inspired by his mere presence. That front pairing with Cavani is integral to this team’s approach, Suárez’s movement allowing the Paris Saint-Germain forward to drift as a second striker, sometimes dropping deeper even than Lodeiro to supplement numbers in midfield and grant a creaky, unfamiliar defence more protection. Their play can be more direct with the Liverpool player’s menace on the shoulder of the opposition centre-half. “An exceptional player can lift a team,” Hodgson had acknowledged before this loss. Here an outstanding talent contrived to sink one. Just 28 days later, the horror was all English.