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Group of Death

Group D
Uruguay, England & Italy to battle it out for knock-out berths

Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez (in pic) has pulled the two-time world champions out of footballing obscurity and into the forefront of the world stage. After having to rely on a play-off win over Jordan, Uruguay are now one of the dark-horses to reach the latter stages. At the same time, Uruguay remain cautiously optimistic about Luis Suarez’s participation in the World Cup as the Liverpool striker continues his rehabilitation from a minor knee operation. The 27-year-old underwent surgery recently to repair damage in his left knee, which put his participation doubt.

Tabarez has brought Uruguay back to football’s top table, reaching the semi-finals of the last World Cup and winning the 2011 Copa America, while all the time accepting and playing within their limitations. And this is basically the same squad - indeed many of the group have been together since the 2007 Copa America.

Uruguay will play a similar game, based on a 4-4-2 formation that took them to the semi-finals in South Africa four years ago and is reminiscent of classic Italian teams. Cristian Rodriguez, who was suspended from the 2010 tournament, is the usual starter in the role behind the strikers that Diego Forlan occupied at the previous finals. The midfield will include two or three defensive players chosen from Egidio Arevalo Rios, Walter Gargano, Diego Perez and Alvaro Gonzalez, all South Africa veterans.

The reliable Fernando Muslera is still at the goal and the defence is built around captain Diego Lugano, partnered in the centre by a maturing Diego Godin, with Maxi Pereira at right back and Martin Caceres on the left, which points to a settled, if not hugely gifted, side.

Uruguay are able to trouble any team at the tournament with their explosive front three. Edinson Cavani is a fine player and a stunning finisher. Suarez is the schemer, causing problems with his wonderful dribbling and phenomenal work-rate. And a newly resurgent Forlan can offer that X-factor. However, with their unreliable defence, Uruguay tend to have an approach to games that is almost “we can score more than you.”

KEY PLAYERS

Suarez

Diego Forlan: Voted best player of the 2010 finals and twice winner of Europe’s Golden Boot, he is going to his third World Cup. A cool-headed finisher who scores from close in or outside the box, he moved to Japan this year from Brazil’s Internacional and also had stints in England and Spain

Diego Godin: Belongs to a select group of about a dozen players who have been with Tabarez from the start of the coach’s second tenure, which began in 2006. He usually keeps a low profile, but is a physical defender with good control.

Luis Suarez: The Liverpool striker is one of the hottest players in the world right now and, if it were not for his disciplinary record, would probably be a rightful contender for Ballon D’Or. Suarez is recovering from a knee surgery and was apparently targeting the England game on June 19, but could return even sooner. And that’s bad news for the rivals.

Costa Rica were pretty impressive throughout their qualifying campaign. They finished in second place in the Concacaf stage and in doing so progressed to Brazil with relative ease. Under their boss Jorge Luis Pinto (in pic), they play variations of a system which is primarily focused around three central defenders, with the team flexible in whether they play a flat-back five or three centre-backs and a pair of wingbacks.

Costa Rica have participated in three World Cups previously, but made it out of the group stages only once, in 1990, when they beat Scotland and Sweden and narrowly lost to Brazil in the group stage.

However, fate was not kind to Pinto and his side as they landed alongside heavyweights like Italy, Uruguay and England. The draw has now reduced the Costa Ricans’ status from round of 16 candidates to just a hopeful side.

However, the quality of the opposition doesn’t mean that Costa Rica’s quality will go unnoticed. The team boasts some real talent and their vaunted rivals will have to be very attentive if they wish to avoid an being shocked by their Central American rivals. In fact, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that the games against Costa Rica could well decide who advances in what is the most difficult group of the competition.

Pinto will feel he has something to prove in what is his second spell as the Costa Rica boss. He was relieved of his duties in his previous spell back in 2005 despite overseeing the country’s successful qualification for the 2006 World Cup.

Costa Rica’s chances of surviving one of the World Cup’s toughest groups depend on the recovery of injured defender Bryan Oviedo and the goalscoring prowess of young striker Joel Campbell.

The team’s mainstays are Keylor Navas, Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz, and all three are poised to make an impression this summer.

KEY PLAYERS

Campbell

Joel Campbell: He made a good impression in the Champions League for Olympiakos this season and had been loaned out by parent club Arsenal to French team Lorient and Spanish club Real Betis over the last three years. Campbell is fast, tricky and can play on the wing or inside. He has a very bright future.

Byran Ruiz: During his time at Fulham, Ruiz has shown glimpses of some real quality. But in truth, given his ability, it is infuriating how the Costa Rica captain drifts in and out of games. In this Costa Rica team, Ruiz takes on the brunt of the creative responsibility. He typically operates from the right-hand-side of a four man midfield but is given the licence to drift about the pitch and influence the game.

KEYLOR NAVAS: Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas is likely to have a lot to do, but he has had his best season for Levante and is considered one of the top goalkeepers in the Spanish league. Navas left Costa Rica for Spain in 2010, but only made his first-division debut in May 2012.

When England were drawn with Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica in a tough first round group, there was a pessimistic mood in the English camp. England coach Roy Hodgson (in pic) had said before the draw that the one place he wanted to avoid was Manaus known for its sweltering heat. At the draw, England were drawn to face Italy in their opening game in the north-western city of Brazil, where the climatic conditions may overwhelm the European sides. But as months have passed since the draw, so the expectations have begun to grow.

In the qualifiers, despite going through the entire campaign undefeated, England fans were left sweating on whether or not the team was going to qualify for the 2014 showpiece right up until the final two games. The team stuttered through their early matches and failed to establish a winning groove early on.

Hodgson, the 66-year-old manager, has been careful to avoid talking up England’s prospects. Perhaps he has just been wary about raising unrealistic hopes.

On the one hand, he has a squad full of exciting young talents such as Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling, the Arsenal’s injury-prone Jack Wilshere and on the other there is the promising Southampton duo Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw.

Over the past two years, Hodgson has given youngsters like Lallana, Shaw, Sterling and Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge a chance to prove themselves and they have not let him down.

However, if there is one player who can steer England to glory, it is Wayne Rooney. He might have failed to make an impact in the two previous World Cups he played, but still one cannot rule out his importance in the side. If he is on song, he can prove to be a nightmare for the opponent defence.

KEY PLAYERS

Rooney

STEVEN GERRARD: The Liverpool and England skipper turned 34 last week, but there is no hint of a decline in his power or form. The finals will be his fifth major tournament. He is England’s third most-capped player after Peter Shilton (125) and David Beckham (115).

WAYNE ROONEY: England fans have lots of hope on Wayne Rooney because of his fine performance for Manchester United under David Moyes. For many, Rooney is England’s only world class talent and a big performance at a major tournament is long overdue. Indeed, it is hard to believe this World Cup will mark ten years since the then-Everton player took Euro 2004 by storm.

RAHEEM STERLING: If anyone has the potential to shine, it is this 19-year-old Liverpool winger. England have a refreshing team mixed with experience and young talented players such as Sterling and Ross Barkley. However, they will need match winners against the big teams which is something they’ve lacked.

With a squad boasting of talented players like Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli, the intelligence of coach Cesare Prandelli (in pic) and the team’s fine showing in last summer’s Confederations Cup, things are looking good for the Azzuris in Brazil. Since 1982, the four-time World Cup winners have reached five finals and two semi-finals in World Cup or European championship.

Not everything has gone down well with Italy in the past few months as they have gone five games without a win between last September and May. Italy’s two most influential players have a combined age of over 70, their most prolific striker is battling injury and other key players are prone to wild swings in temperament.

Meanwhile, an unproductive youth system is struggling to replenish the talent pool, and despite his best efforts to promote younger players, Prandelli could end up fielding a starting eleven with an average age of around 30.

Looking ahead to the World Cup, the Italians are expected the have one of the most experienced squads of any side. Figures like Buffon, Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Giorgio Chiellini still make up the core of this side, but youngsters like Lorenzo Insigne, Stephan El Shaarawy and Mattia De Sciglio could be blooded in to give the first eleven a revitalised feel.

With the bulk of the Italian squad coming from Juventus and AC Milan, the players will have a cohesive understanding of how their teammates operate. The starting team will be full of club partnerships — particularly in defence and midfield — and that familiarity will no doubt serve them well.

Prandelli’s first task would be to steer Italy through a tough-looking first-round group against Uruguay, England and Costa Rica and make sure they do not suffer a repeat of their elimination at the first hurdle in South Africa in 2010, when they went home early following draws with Paraguay and New Zealand and a loss to Slovakia.

In nearly four years since, he has restored Italy’s credibility and largely succeeded in removing the histrionics and negativity from their game.

KEY PLAYERS

Pirlo

Mario Balotelli: When Mario Balotelli gets focussed, there is often no stopping him. Italy have never really had a forward that combines so much physicality and skill - a player who can muscle by defenders to score goals or find the target with well-placed free kicks or penalties. Until he finally missed in September, Balotelli had converted all 26 penalty kick attempts in his professional career.

Gianluigi Buffon: Still one of the best goalkeepers in the world. The 2006 World Cup winner, who made his international debut in 1997, is set to play at his fourth World Cup and was also an unused squad player in 1998. He was jokingly described as a ‘pensioner’ by Franz Beckenbauer after a Champions League match last season.

Andrea Pirlo: Having earned more than 100 caps for his country, for the 35-year-old Pirlo, this looks set to be his last major tournament. The Juventus midfielder has learned to adapt his game, no longer being used as what you’d call a classic defensive midfielder, but as a deep-lying playmaker.

Compiled by Jaydeep Basu