Soccer / Sports

European teams are tough on Uruguay

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Luis Suarez is the best soccer player in the world.

That's not opinion, it's science.

Or at least it's the science compiled by Bloomberg, which analyzed players in Europe's top five leagues, measuring everything from defensive and attacking responsibilities to the level of competition. And those measurements found the Uruguayan striker is better than Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Those measurements also go a long way toward explaining why soccer fans across Uruguay have been praying for Suarez's quick recovery from emergency surgery to repair meniscus in his left knee. Because without him, Uruguay's chances of advancing to the World Cup semifinals for the third time since 1950 fall dramatically.

Suarez, who led the English Premier League with 31 goals for Liverpool, was hurt in the final game of the season when he collided with Newcastle's Paul Dummett. The injury wasn't considered serious until Suarez pulled up lame in Uruguay's World Cup training camp.

Within hours Suarez was being prepped for surgery and Dummett was receiving death threats from Uruguayan fans -- presumably the ones who weren't already praying.

Uruguay Coach Oscar Tabarez took a more hopeful approach, though, adding Suarez, 27, to his roster while crossing his fingers and hoping he'll be able to play.

"When I heard, I said, 'No, not now, please,'" Uruguayan defender Diego Godin told reporters.

"The truth is that I felt ill, it is something that nobody expected. He is our figurehead, our star."

And a likely spectator for Uruguay's tournament opener with Costa Rica. But the following two games are against traditional powers England and Italy -- European teams are like kryptonite to Uruguay's Supermen -- and Tabarez hopes to have the world's best player available by then.

The date with England is one players on both sides circled long ago. Although Suarez has made great strides toward reforming a bad-boy past that includes two suspensions for biting opponents, he is not widely loved in England.

However, after taking Liverpool to the brink of its first league title in the Premier League era, he is respected.

"We've got chemistry. We get along on and off the field," said England's Daniel Sturridge, Suarez's Liverpool teammate who finished second in the league scoring race with 21 goals. "It's a beautiful feeling to have a partnership with a world-class striker."

Sturridge is one of five Liverpool players on the England roster -- and Suarez has been texting all of them, promising to be on the field in Sao Paulo for the game that's likely to decide which of the two advances out of group play.

If Suarez can't make it, then Dummett, who plays internationally for Wales, could wind up getting some votes as England's player of the year.

"From a really selfish point of view, it would help England against Uruguay if he wasn't available," England midfielder Steven Gerrard, the Liverpool captain, said of Suarez. "I just hope he's fit when we go back with Liverpool."

Even without Suarez, forwards Diego Forlan, an all-tournament selection in the last World Cup, and Edinson Cavani of Paris Saint-Germain probably give Uruguay enough firepower to beat a young, rebuilding England team whose lone world-class star is Wayne Rooney.

But if England is there for the experience, for Uruguay the World Cup is all business. Which is why Forlan taped a TV commercial recently wearing a T-shirt with a lengthy if somewhat esoteric message.

"We're not the favorites nor will we be a surprise," it read. "We are the team that no one wants to draw."

Especially if it has the world's best player at its disposal.

WORLD CUP PREVIEW, GROUP D:

Costa Rica:

--FIFA World ranking: 28.

--Last World Cup: 2006.

--Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (1990).

--How qualified: CONCACAF runner-up.

--It's a fact: Costa Rica is the only Central American nation to win a World Cup game.

--The skinny: Costa Rica has little chance of surviving this group, especially now that Real Salt Lake striker Alvaro Saborio, who led the team in scoring during qualifying, is out with a broken bone in his foot. That blow has been cushioned somewhat by the recent form of Joel Campbell, who scored eight times in 32 games with Greek club Olympiacos. Bryan Ruiz, the team's most creative player, will be responsible for getting the ball to Campbell. At the other end, keeper Keylor Navas is coming off a breakout season at Levante in Spain.

England:

--FIFA World ranking: 10.

--Last World Cup: 2010.

--Best World Cup finish: Champion (1966).

--How qualified: UEFA Group H winner.

--It's a fact: England played in history's first official international soccer game, in Scotland, in 1872. Naturally, neither team scored.

--The skinny: Brazil's climate has been worrisome for the English, who began training camp working out in three layers of clothing to simulate South America's heat and humidity. But if England goes out early, it won't have the weather to blame. It has a rather uninspiring roster with only one true world-class player in Wayne Rooney. But if Daniel Sturridge scores as he did with Liverpool this season and if Jack Wilshere and teenager Raheem Sterling play up to their potential, England could surprise. In goal, Manchester City's Joe Hart is solid -- which is good, because he may also be busy.

Italy:

--FIFA World ranking: 9.

--Last World Cup: 2010.

--Best World Cup finish: Four-time champion (1934, '38, '82, 2006).

--How qualified: UEFA Group B winner.

--It's a fact: Midfielder Daniele De Rossi has a "beware of being tackled" tattoo on his right calf. Set in a yellow triangle, it pictures a stick man sliding in to win the ball from another.

--The skinny: Italy rolled unbeaten through UEFA qualifying but it's not taking the same team to Brazil, leaving home players responsible for nine of its 19 goals in those 10 qualifiers. But Coach Cesare Prandelli is taking Mario Balotelli, who can take over a tournament, as he did in the 2012 Euros when he carried Italy to the final. New Jersey-born striker Giuseppe Rossi, Florentina's top scorer with 16 goals, was among the final cuts, as he was four years ago. Milan midfielder Riccardo Montolivo was also left out after suffering a broken leg in Saturday's friendly with Ireland.

Uruguay:

--FIFA World ranking: 7.

--Last World Cup: 2010.

--Best World Cup finish: Two-time champions (1930, 1950).

--How qualified: Beat Jordan in intercontinental playoff.

--It's a fact: Two-time champion Uruguay, with a population of 3.4 million people -- and about 14 million head of cattle -- is the smallest country to win a World Cup.

--The skinny: The most important race any Uruguayan will run this year will take place not on the field but in the training room, where Luis Suarez is in a battle against the clock to come back from knee surgery. But though Uruguay is the favorite in a group that includes three former champions, it faces a tough road. Two of those teams -- Italy and England -- are European and in the 2010 World Cup Uruguay did not beat a European opponent. The same thing happened at the Confederations Cup two years ago, when Uruguay lost to Italy and Spain.

Schedule

--June 14: Uruguay vs. Costa Rica at Fortaleza; England vs. Italy at Manaus.

--June 19: Uruguay vs. England at Sao Paulo.

--June 20: Italy vs. Costa Rica at Recife.

--June 24: Italy vs. Uruguay at Natal; Costa Rica vs. England at Belo Horizonte.

(c)2014 Los Angeles Times

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Distributed by MCT Information Services


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