NATAL, Brazil (AP) — Uruguay striker Luis Suarez smiled and shrugged off any lingering concerns about his surgically repaired left knee, declaring Monday it was in “perfect shape” the day before a match against Italy that Uruguay must win to advance beyond the group stage at the World Cup.
The Liverpool forward had surgery to repair a torn meniscus before the tournament and was sidelined for Uruguay’s opening loss to Costa Rica. He returned to score both goals in a 2-1 win over England, putting the English squad out of contention at the tournament.
Suarez, who scored 31 goals and was voted player of the year in the Premier League last season, said he was “building myself back up” to play Italy in the coastal city of Natal, where conditions are expected to be hot and humid for the 1 p.m. local time start.
“It feels good. I think (the knee) is in perfect shape,” Suarez said through a translator, comparing the match against Italy with a final.
The match against England was Suarez’s first in more than a month. Asked if he had any pain afterward, Suarez grinned and said, “If the knee didn’t feel good, I would have told the coach I couldn’t play … so I’m cool right now.”
Suarez will be counted on to deliver goals for Uruguay again, with the 2010 semifinalists needing a win to advance out of Group D. Italy can advance with a draw.
“I trust him,” Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez said. “He knows what to do in the last 20 minutes in front of the goal. You don’t lose that just because you had a (knee) operation. He put everything that he had into overcoming this situation.”
A healthy Suarez gives Uruguay a potent dual attack with Edinson Cavani, one of the top scorers in the French league last season at Paris Saint-Germain.
“Their attack pairing is one of the strongest in the World Cup,” Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. “They’re both modern forwards with a feeling for the goal who don’t concede reference points to defenders. We’re going to have to contain them.”
Cavani scored from the penalty spot against Costa Rica, but the Uruguay attack appeared tame for much of that match without Suarez.
Tabarez wouldn’t reveal his lineup but hinted that he won’t make any changes from the squad that beat England.
“I respect very much the team that played the last match,” he said. “I told them the team was up to scratch.”
That squad didn’t include regular defender and captain Diego Lugano, who sat out with a left knee strain. Uruguay also was criticized for continuing to play midfielder Alvaro Pereira against England after he took a hard blow to the head in the 61st minute.
Pereira said he was briefly knocked unconscious and then felt dizzy after the blow but was allowed to return to field. The world players’ union, FIFPro, later criticized FIFA for what it called lax concussion assessment protocols that it said “failed to protect” Pereira.
FIFA said that Pereira was allowed to return against England after the Uruguay team physician’s neurological exam of Pereira “clearly showed that it’s normal.”
Tabarez, who briefly coached in Italy at AC Milan and Cagliari in the 1990s and is dubbed “El Maestro,” described facing Italy in a do-or-die situation as “a gift sent from heaven above.”
“If we are fortunate, we will win it,” Tabarez said.
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