With the start of the FIFA World Cup 2014 less than a week away, I am taking a look at each group, the teams, the key players and matches and also offering my predictions. Here, I look at Group D - the second ‘group of death’ - containing England, Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica.
When FA Chairman Greg Dyke made a cut-throat gesture at the World Cup draw in December last year he was criticised for being defeatist, but in truth he was merely expressing the feeling shared by all England fans. The draw for Brazil 2014 could have been kinder to Roy Hodgson’s team, but at the same time the group is not insurmountable.
England will be nobodies favourites and they won’t threaten to lift the trophy on July 13, but, unburdened by the tag of being a ‘golden generation’ and unaccompanied by the ridiculously excessive hype from the English media, they may do better than expected. It’s not an exciting England outfit, but Hodgson’s down-to-earth approach seems to have bred more togetherness and greater humility than in past tournaments.
The shape and personnel to take on Italy in the opening match will dominate discussion. The most natural shape given the squad Hodgson has selected is a 4-3-3, but given the conservative personality of Hodgson a rigid 4-4-2 will probably be the method.
England do have individual matchwinners and a couple of wild cards in Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley. However, ultimately the absence of a top class, proven playmaker and England’s perennial inability to retain possession against top teams will be their undoing.
Well that, or penalties again.
Key player: Steven Gerrard
The England captain’s form will determine how far they go go.
The Liverpool midfielder has adapted well this season to his more withdrawn role for both club and country and he is the only England player with the experience and technique to take a game by the scruff of the neck and control the midfield.
Gerrard’s job will be to try and emulate what Andrea Pirlo does for Italy and Xavi for Spain in conditions where a high premium will be placed on ball retention. If he can do that and open the door for England’s match winners, with a bit of good fortune it is not unreasonable to think England could pull off a surprise last-four appearance.
World Cup best
Odds: 25-1 (Coral)
Italy slaughtered England two years in their Euro 2012 quarter-final, but England somehow scrambled to give themselves a puncher’s chance in a penalty shoot-out. This time around the consensus is that this is a better, fitter, more youthful and attacking Italian team.
Renowned historically as a defensive team, under current boss Cesare Prandelli there has been a gradual move towards a more adventurous style of play. However, the flipside is that in recent tournaments Italy have been uncharacteristically generous in defence. In last summer’s Confederations Cup, they managed just one clean sheet in their four matches, conceding seven goals in games against Brazil and Japan.
Pirlo will once again orchestrate play from his deep-lying midfield ‘regista’ position and the Azzurri will hope former Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli can provide the thrust up front to compliment the vision of Parma’s Antonio Cassano.
Italy probably lack the true star quality you would expect to see from world champions, however that didn’t stop them in their surprise triumph in Germany eight years ago and in conditions that may favour defensive, low-tempo possession football, another run to the final stages shouldn’t be ruled out.
Key player: Andrea Pirlo
Juventus playmaker Pirlo delivered a masterclass in midfield play against England two years ago, capping it with an impudent Panenka style penalty in Italy’s shootout success.
Such was the impact of Pirlo in that match that football administrators in England have been scratching their heads ever since about why they don’t produce such players. His battle with Gerrard should prove a worthy examination of how good the England captain is in the regista role.
Despite being 35-years-old at the start of the tournament, Pirlo remains, alongside Spain’s Xavi, the regista extraordinaire in world football. His form for Juventus has seen ‘The Old Lady’ win three consecutive Serie A titles.
Pirlo will once again be at the centre of it all for Italy and his chemistry with Cassano will be pivotal in creating scoring opportunities for Balotelli.
Expect grace, poise and guile; expect to witness a maestro in complete control of his powers.
World Cup best
Winners: 1934, 1938, 1982 & 2006
25-1 (Bet Victor)
Despite finishing fifth in CONMEBOL qualification and requiring an intercontinental play-off victory over Jordan to earn a place in Brazil, Uruguay remain much fancied.
Fourth placed finishes in South Africa four years ago and in last summer’s Confederations Cup - to go along with Copa America success in 2011 - probably add weight to Uruguay’s credentials, but largely they’re being fancied because of their formidable attack comprised of Liverpool striker Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
Both starred in South Africa and four years on the strike duo are better and more experienced players. Suarez has never been in better form, having smashed 31 Premier League goals last season, and is probably the most sought-after forward in world football right now. The trouble is, Suarez is fighting to be fit for the World Cup.
Yet, despite boasting a powerful attack (ably supported by veteran Diego Forlan), Uruguay could suffer from their lack of pace in the centre of defence. Atletico Madrid defender Diego Godin is in the form of his career and much will depend on his reliability, especially at set pieces.
However, captain Diego Lugano is not the most mobile defender and with both England and Costa Rica boasting quick and mobile attackers, there could be more than a few uncomfortable moments at the back for Los Charruas.
I Wouldn’t be surprised if they make it to the round of 16, but I don’t expect them to go as far as they did in South Africa.
Key player: Luis Suarez
Uruguay will be hoping Suarez can fire them to another challenge - that’s if they can get him onto the pitch. Los Charruas are currently sweating on the fitness of their star striker after recent surgery on a knee injury.
Such is Suarez’s importance, you feel Uruguay may even risk him if he isn’t 100% fit at the start of the tournament. There are able back-ups in Forlan and Palermo attacker Abel Hernandez, but they will not strike the same kind of fear into opponents as the sight of the marauding Liverpool forward.
The chances of Italy and England qualifying will grow exponentially as Uruguay’s hopes fall if Suarez is unable to play. Getting him fit enough is one thing, but getting him back to 100% could be a challenge too far.
If Suarez does not recover in time, all Uruguayan eyes will turn to Paris Saint-Germain striker Cavani to lead the line.
World Cup best
Winners: 1930 & 1950
25-1 (William Hill)
As far as rank outsiders go, Costa Rica are out there with the unlikeliest of all World Cup contenders. That Los Ticos made it through qualification ahead of the likes of Mexico was a staggering achievement in itself, but it’s very unlikely there is a fairytale story awaiting Jorge Luis Pinto’s side in Brazil.
In Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell, Costa Rica possess ‘on their day’ match-winners, but the trouble is a lack of pedigree elsewhere on the pitch.
Faced with a tough assignment in this group, the aim for Costa Rica will surely be damage limitation and maybe an outside hope of springing a highly unlikely World Cup upset, or even a singular triumphant moment.
I wouldn’t bet on it, and considering some of the odds offered by bookmakers there are few with very much faith in Los Ticos chances of repeating their 1990 run to the round of 16.
Key player: Bryan Ruiz
PSV forward Ruiz captains the Costa Rican side and if anyone in their squad can conjure a moment of World Cup magic it is him.
Followers of the Premier League know that Ruiz is capable of producing something sublime, but the trouble is he does so against the backdrop of frustrating inconsistency. Against the physicality England, Italy and Uruguay will bring it will be difficult for the lightweight Ruiz to make a significant enough impact on a match for Los Ticos to spring a surprise.
Nevertheless, a long-range shot or a dead-ball situation could provide Ruiz with an opportunity to give Costa Rican fans a rare World Cup cheer, but anymore than that would be a shock in itself.
World Cup best
Round of 16: 1990
England v Italy (14 June, Manaus, 19.00 local time)
If we get a repeat of the goalless draw played out in the Euro 2012 quarter-final I suspect both teams will be happy. In the heat and humidity of the Amazon, expect a cagey, low tempo and drab affair.
Uruguay v England (19 June, Sao Paulo, 16.00 local time)
Having seen him put Premier League defences to the slaughter all season in the red of Liverpool, England fans are fearing their date with Suarez.
If he’s fit, Suarez could wreck England’s World Cup hopes, but if England can shut out the Anfield star their pace on the break will expose Uruguay’s lack of mobility at the back.
Italy v Uruguay (24 June, Natal, 13.00 local time)
This could be a tussle for top spot with both teams already qualified if they can both put England to the sword. The likelihood of this is slim as I doubt we’ll see much adventure in this group. Could be tense if England are racking up the goals in the other game against Costa Rica.
I’m anticipating goalless or low-score draws in the all the fixtures between England, Italy and Uruguay, which means it will probably come down to which two teams can beat Costa Rica most handsomely.
Uruguay have the best attack so you have to fancy them. What could work in England’s favour is that Italy and Uruguay face each other in the final game knowing that a dour draw may not be enough for both of them.
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