World Cup Preview: England in tough against difficult Group D

England's Raheem Sterling catches the ball during a soccer training session ahead of the 2014 World...

England's Raheem Sterling catches the ball during a soccer training session ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, June 9, 2014. (REUTERS/Darren Staples)

Kurtis Larson, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:35 PM ET

ITALY

  • Best finish: Champions (1934, ’38, ’82, ’06)
  • Appearances: 18
  • Marquee player: Andrea Pirlo (Juventus)
  • Oddsmakers say: 22-1 to win the 2014 World Cup
  • How they got here: Finished unbeaten atop a UEFA qualifying group featuring Denmark and the Czech Republic, among others.

The skinny: Aging Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon baffled before the tournament by telling reporters he’d be happy if the Azzurri reached the quarterfinals at Brazil 2014. Considering their Group D opponents — England, Uruguay and Costa Rica — it’s a measured goal. To Italian fans, however, that’s cause for concern. Either the 36-year-old is just playing down expectations or he’s willing to settle for far less than Italian teams of the past two decades. This is a nation that advanced from its World Cup group in every tourney from 1970 to 2006, reaching the semifinals six times along the way. It’s a team whose fans expect it to compete for World Cup crowns every four years. Consider this: The Italians have reached the semifinals at the past two tournaments they’ve entered — the 2012 Euros and 2013 Confederations Cup. They avenged a second-place finish to Spain in 2012 with a solid showing at last summer’s Confederation’s Cup in Brazil, falling to Spain in penalties before topping Uruguay on penalties in the third-place match. And that’s where this talented team has the upper hand. They’ve played five competitive fixtures in Brazil already. Italy’s opening opponent, England, has played none. That alone makes the Azzurri favourites to progress from Group D. Then there’s head coach Cesare Prandelli’s sophistication. He gets the most out of each of his players by changing up systems based on opponents and circumstance. As he told La Gazzetta dello Sport in a recent interview, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see this Italian side start and finish a match using the same system it began with. And for a team such as England — seemingly forever a slave to the flat 4-4-2 — Italy’s unpredictability could come as a shock. All this before even mentioning some of the best players in the world. Milan striker Mario Balotelli is a physical, LeBron James-like presence up top. To complement Balotelli’s power, Prandelli has a wealth of experience to choose from in midfield, allowing his team selection to vary game-to-game. The ageless Andrea Pirlo continues to play as if he’s being controlled with a joystick while Daniele De Rossi offers a more blue-collar option in the middle third. One thing that will concern Italy fans is the number of times the Italians have conceded in recent memory. Despite having the depth and flair to match anyone in the attack, they’re not as stingy as they have been in the past.

ENGLAND

  • Best finish: Champions (1966)
  • Appearances: 14
  • Marquee player: Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
  • Oddsmakers say: 20-1 to win the 2014 World Cup
  • How they got here: Finished unbeaten atop a UEFA qualifying group boasting Ukraine, Montenegro and Poland, among others.

The skinny: The English are so concerned with Brazil’s climate they began pre-World Cup training in three layers at their training camp in Algarve, Portugal, hoping to learn as much as possible about each player’s sweat. All three of their opponents are quite comfortable playing in the Brazilian heat — Costa Rica and Uruguay because they do it regularly, Italy because they did it at last summer’s Confederations Cup. The more you ponder this England side, the more you shy away from predicting it will enjoy any kind of success this month. There were calls from prominent figures in the build-up for Roy Hodgson to drop Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney from the lineup. There are also major questions about England’s defence, with United defender Phil Jones returning from injury following a Premier League season to forget. As for the centre back pairing of Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka, there are as many questions about them as the midfield in front of them. Hodgson’s middle third is a mix of guys outside their prime — Steven Gerrard, 33, and Frank Lampard, 35 — and guys who haven’t yet discovered their prime. England’s schedule doesn’t exactly line up nicely, either. They’ll have significant travel after opening against Italy in Manaus. They’ll then face Uruguay in what could be a do-or-die match before finishing with the lightweight of Group D, Costa Rica. This is a squad that had its struggles in qualifying. Although they were unbeaten, they only began to pull away in their UEFA group during the final two matchdays after a plethora of draws. It seems Hodgson is in a bit a predicament: At some point, he’ll need to rely on his old heads. At other times, he’ll need to rely on his youth. It’s as if English soccer has skipped a generation after the previous one stayed too long.

COSTA RICA

  • Best finish: Round of 16 (1990)
  • Appearances: 4
  • Marquee player: Bryan Ruiz (PSV)
  • Oddsmakers say: 1000-1 to win the 2014 World Cup
  • How they got here: Finished second in CONCACAF qualifying, four points behind the United States.

The skinny: The Ticos suffered a major blow two weeks before the tournament when forward Alvaro Saborio went down with a foot fracture during a closed-door training session. Saborio, who is a top forward with Real Salt Lake in Major League Soccer, led Costa Rica with eight goals during World Cup qualifying, placing him among the leaders in terms of production. While the aforementioned loss will make things slightly more difficult, the Ticos are as good as any side in CONCACAF when playing at home. They dispatched both Mexico and the United States in San Jose late last year and were once again a top side in qualifying, losing just twice while conceding just seven times through 10 qualifiers, the least amount of the six CONCACAF teams that were competing for 3.5 spots. For Costa Rica, it’s about finally proving to the rest of the world they belong. Those who routinely watch the Central Americans know they possess dangerous players. PSV (on loan from Fulham) midfielder Bryan Ruiz is among the most creative players in the Americas and will shoulder even more of the attacking burden with Saborio sidelined. Look for Ruiz to roam in an advanced midfield role behind a lone striker, potentially Joel Campbell, who wears the No. 9 shirt for the Central Americans. Although the Costa Ricans won’t be favoured in any of their three group games in Brazil, they do have a player in Campbell who’s capable of changing the game with a single touch. He scored some absolute crackers on loan from Arsenal at Olympiacos this year and does offer Ruiz and the rest of the Ticos an outlet up front. He’ll chase balls down and have a run at defenders whenever he picks up possession in space. While it’s unclear how much the weather will impact sides such as England or Italy, the tropical climate won’t bother Costa Rica in the least. They thrive on it. They regularly host matches in hot, humid and damp conditions. The Costa Ricans won’t get walked over here. They often aren’t given enough credit at major tournaments. They’ll open group play on June 14 against Uruguay, who they’ve played tough in recent memory. Remember that fourth-place finish by the Uruguayans last time around in South Africa? Well, they narrowly escaped an intercontinental playoff with Costa Rica just to qualify for the 2010 edition.

URUGUAY

  • Best finish: Champions (1930, ‘50)
  • Appearances: 12
  • Marquee player: Luis Suarez
  • Oddsmakers say: 28-1 to win the 2014 World Cup
  • How they got here: Finished fifth in CONMEBOL qualifying before topping Jordan 5-0 on aggregate in an inter-continental playoff

The skinny: The fourth-place finishers from 2010 limped into the World Cup after finishing fifth in a South American qualification campaign that didn’t feature the likes of Brazil, who bypassed qualifying as 2014 hosts. Despite returning 15 players from the last World cup, the Uruguayans suffered a shocking stretch during last year’s qualifying which saw them remain winless in six, conceding 15 times along the way. The good news is they possess two of the world’s most sought-after strikers: Liverpool’s Luis Suarez and PSG’s Edinson Cavani. Both are 27 and are expected to find a way to guide Uruguay past England and Italy to the top of the group. Concerns about Suarez’s knee injury are becoming fainter every day as the English Premier League’s Golden Boot winner (31 goals) looks to build on one of the best seasons in EPL history. Head coach Oscar Tabarez also has an old head to lean on if times get tough as Diego Forlan — the 2010 Golden Boot winner — is back for another tournament. Although it possesses three of the better attackers in the tournament, Uruguay must answer questions at the back. The team’s captain, Diego Lugano, is coming off a Premier League season to forget. He will, however, have a steady presence next to him in Diego Godin, the Atletico Madrid centre half who held off Real Madrid for 90-plus minutes at last month’s Champions League final. If Uruguay’s big guys are firing on all cylinders when they open against Costa Rica this week, there’s no reason not to think the South Americans won’t find success on what’s essentially their home turf. Being Brazil’s southern neighbour, they’ll have an immense amount of support to complement the wealth of experience they gained after surprising in South Africa. This time around, an appearance in the last eight should be seen as the minimum requirement. Although fans of Los Charruas will tell you there’s no reason they can’t win the whole thing.


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