June 11, 2014

MOGI DAS CRUZES, Brazil (AP) To understand just how precious a team's top forward is, simply look at the coaches' frowns when one is hobbling or grimacing during World Cup preparations.

Or the relief when an injury doesn't appear to be as bad as feared.

So when Romelu Lukaku was performing balancing drills on his right ankle without any negative effect on Wednesday, Belgium could take a sigh of relief - its top striker looked fully fit again.

The same goes for defending champion Spain, which now has good hope of recovering Diego Costa for its hotly anticipated rematch of the 2010 final against the Netherlands on Friday.

''He's ready,'' said Spain midfielder and Atletico Madrid teammate Koke. ''He looks 100 percent to me.''

Costa was the perfect proof of the lengths teams will go to in order to have their star striker available for big games. Hobbling on one leg with bad hamstring, Costa tried an experimental cure with horse placenta to get ready for last month's Champions League final against Real Madrid.

It didn't work. Despite Atletico gambling on Costa's fitness and playing him from the start, the striker had to limp off after just nine minutes. Now, after resting, all of Spain hopes he will be fit to score for his country.

Uruguay is in a similar situation. With Luis Suarez in the lineup, Brazil's neighbor looks like a contender. Without him, the team suddenly becomes an underdog in a group which includes Italy and England.

After a standout season with Liverpool that earned him player-of-the-year honors in the Premier League, Suarez needed arthroscopic surgery on his knee on May 22 - suddenly putting his World Cup in doubt. The mercurial forward still worked out separately when his teammates played a training match on Tuesday, an ominous sign ahead of Saturday's opener against Costa Rica.

Belgium has traditionally often lacked a top-level striker, and so it was no wonder that the buzz around the team this year was boosted by the fact that it now was supposed to have two legitimate scoring threats in Brazil.

But first, the team's No. 1 forward Christian Benteke injured his Achilles tendon and was ruled out of the World Cup. Then, Lukaku was injured last Saturday during a 1-0 win over Tunisia. It seemed the fortunes of a nation hung in the balance.

After hobbling through the weekend, showing off a huge bandage on his right ankle, Lukaku was fine again by Wednesday.

''You saw the kind of pressure he put on his ankle during the workout,'' Wilmots said.

Surely, Belgium's opponents also took note.

At least Belgium, Spain and Uruguay still have hope.

For Colombia, that vanished earlier this month. Monaco striker Radamel Falcao, the team's biggest star, failed to recover from a knee injury and few give the nation a chance without him.


Follow Raf Casert on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rcasert

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