Hard to praise England’s Roy Hodgson again but his opposite number, Óscar Tabárez, deserves plenty of credit
There was deserved praise for Roy Hodgson and his team after the opening game against Italy but there can be no such praise now. A team and a manager lives and dies by results and England have played two games and lost two games. England, in fact, had never lost their two opening games of a World Cup – until now.
And that is with the second-highest paid manager of the tournament in charge. Perhaps it is unfair to mention pay here but the fact is Hodgson failed to exploit the weaknesses of a Uruguay team that peaked two or three years ago. They were there for the taking. They had been poor against Costa Rica – and yet England started very hesitantly. There was no sustained pressure on Uruguay’s shaky back-line, so exposed by a player not deemed good enough for a place in the Arsenal squad (not up until now, at least), Joel Campbell.
Worse, perhaps, there did not seem to be any belief that they could take them on and win. Maybe the FA, in hindsight, should have gone for Niko Kovac on a salary of £160,000. They would have saved themselves £3.484m a year – and England fans a performance like the one against Uruguay.
And so he cried again: Luis Suárez. On Monday 5 May they were tears of sadness, as Liverpool let slip a three-goal lead at Crystal Palace, on Thursday night they were tears of joy. In between there had been keyhole surgery and doubts over whether he could play at all at this World Cup. But of course he could – and the World Cup is richer for it. After the injuries to Franck Ribéry, Marco Reus and others it was a delight to see him being able to do what he has done all season for Liverpool on the biggest stage of them all. Both goals were of such outstanding quality it is difficult to say which one was better. Everything about the header was perfect: anticipation, movement and execution. With the second it was the opportunistic cheekiness of his actions that took the breath away.
What a miserable seven weeks for Steven Gerrard. After the slip against Chelsea came the header against Uruguay. On both occasions his mistakes proved decisive. One can only imagine the anguish the England and Liverpool captain must have felt after Thursday night’s game and there was no appearance on ITV after the game, like there had been after the gallant defeat against Italy. Part of the problem, just like it had been against Chelsea, was that Gerrard then tried to make up for it by trying too hard. Only natural, of course, but after Suárez’s second goal, when there was 10 minutes left to play including stoppage time, he overhit one free-kick, took a wild shot which went wide and tried to win a free-kick when the ball was running away from him. There are two ways to look at it: one is to say that even the best players make mistakes, the other is to say that it was not good enough. Either way, it is difficult not to feel sorry for him.
Credit must go to the Uruguay coach, Óscar Tabárez. Again he has rallied his troops from a pretty desperate position. In qualifying, when they looked down and out, the team watched Al Pacino’s speech from Any Given Sunday and made cakes for each other. And, on Thursday night, they recovered from one of the worst performances of the opening round of this World Cup to deservedly beat England. Tabárez had lost one of his key midfielders, Maxi Pareira, to suspension and the central defender Diego Lugano to injury. No matter, Uruguay started like a completely different team to the one that lost to Costa Rica; they were aggressive, they were focused and they had a plan. Once, when asked if success was dangerous, Tabárez replied: “Victory is the sweet that rots your teeth.” He won’t have minded this one though.
Finally, it arrived: Wayne Rooney’s first World Cup goal. And for a few giddy minutes he must have thought that his luck had turned. He has been waiting eight years for one, remember. There had been four goalless matches at 2006, when he was unable to unlock the defences of Trinidad & Tobago among others. There were another four matches without him finding the net in South Africa four years ago, when Algeria were among the teams who managed to stop the Manchester United forward from scoring. And then, here in Brazil, there was the ignominy of having to play wide out on the left against Italy. Against Uruguay, he started centrally but, ironically, his goal came from a run from the left. And when it came it was typically Rooney. He just would not stop. He was one step ahead of everyone when Glen Johnson started his run and one step ahead as he finished the same run. Rooney at his best.