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Jun 112014

Without a sexy group moniker and lacking any of the highly touted tournament favorites, one could be forgiven for overlooking Group D at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. But upon closer inspection, the group containing Costa Rica, England, Italy and Uruguay is the only one in the tournament with multiple World Cup winners facing off in the opening round. With seven titles total between the teams – Costa Rica being the only squad without a World Cup win – even more shocking might be the fact any of sides in Group D could top the group as easily as crashing out in glorious fashion.

Costa Rica
Affectionately known as Los Ticos, 2014 will be Costa Rica’s 4th World Cup Finals appearance after narrowly missing out on qualification via the playoffs in 2010 – oddly enough the team taking their place in 2010 was none other than Uruguay. Jorge Luis Pinto’s men are captained by attacker Carlos Ruiz, who after a disappointing spell with Fulham was loaned to PSV Eindhoven in the Dutch Eredivisie. In CONCACAF qualifying, the Ticos were probably most well known for coming out on the losing end of the infamous “Snow Game” versus the US in March of 2013. Following the loss though, Costa Rica went on a six-game unbeaten streak to capture second in CONCACAF, slotting in just behind the Americans and qualifying for Brazil 2014. Despite featuring a wealth of young attacking talent, Costa Rica will sorely miss Alvaro Saborio, after the striker fractured a bone in his foot playing with Real Salt Lake in MLS. With Saborio out for the tournament, the team’s hopes will rest on the shoulders of 21-year-old Joel Campbell. The Arsenal-owned talent only had one goal in qualifying for Costa Rica but shone during his loan with Greek side Olympiacos, including scoring in a round of 16 win over giants Manchester United in the Champions League. Prediction: Los Ticos lack the silverware of the other three teams in the group but by no means can be taken lightly. Familiar with the type of conditions teams will encounter playing in Brazil, the two European sides would be remiss to think they can easily overrun Costa Rica. A surprise might be in this side but they’ll likely prop up the group.

As serial quarterfinalists, it’s sometimes easy to forget the Three Lions once won a World Cup, let alone were in contention come the final. A team so often crushed under the burden of the expectations heaped upon it by its home press, England for once is entering a tournament with fairly low expectations. Despite going undefeated and finishing top of their qualifying group, England edged second place Ukraine by only one point thanks to four draws in their ten matches. Roy Hodson’s side looks to rely heavily on a contingent of Liverpool players including Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Glenn Johnson, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, after the surprising Reds’ side pushed eventual champions Manchester City until the final day of the season. As he was the past two World Cups, the man to watch for England will be Wayne Rooney. Failing to score in either of his two prior World Cups, at 28, Rooney is very much the elder statesman leading the line for England with fellow forwards Sturridge and Sterling a mere 24 and 19 respectively. Prediction: England goes only as far as Rooney. Hodson’s choice to bloody some youngsters is likely going to bode well for England come Euro2016 but for now Wayne has to be the man. England has a tough opening match in Italy, if Rooney rolls zeros once again in a World Cup, expect the English press to have a field day as the team makes an early trip home.

Speaking of Italy, the four-time World Cup champs head to Brazil with World Cup redemption on their mind. Following an utterly abject performance in South Africa 2010, Cesare Prandelli’s men surprised many with a run to the final of Euro2012 before falling to champion Spain 4 – 0. And even more surprising has been the way the Azzurri has gone about winning since 2010. This ain’t your father’s catenaccio playing Italy of the past, with Prandelli preaching a proactive approach to bring the Azzurri up to speed with the modern game. Despite qualifying top of their group for Brazil with two games to play, Italy rued two lackluster draws that saw their world ranking drop outside of the seeded squads for the eventual World Cup draw – oddly enough, once again Uruguay was the team benefitting from another Group D side’s misfortune – leading to a tougher group than many of the traditional world powers. Why always him? Once again, Mario Balotelli is the man to watch for Italy. Petulant, moody, brilliant and frustrating, Balotelli was hot and cold for his club side AC Milan this season. However, Prandelli seems to have found the proper carrot to dangle in front of this stubborn horse, as Balotelli seems to always give his very best in the Italy shirt. Prediction: Don’t be fooled by the Italians lackluster play in friendlies leading up to the tournament. Notorious for only really pressing when their backs are against the wall, Italy should qualify for the next round. However, this is not the group to leave it late with Uruguay their final group opponent. No four-time winner can ever be considered a surprise in a World Cup, but like 2006, Italy are flying under the radar with an experienced coach and a very cohesive side.

Having shattered Brazilian dreams in 1950, La Celeste return to the scene of the crime seeking their third World Cup title in 12 tries. As a surprise package finishing fourth in South Africa 2010, Oscar Tabarez’s men enter the World Cup via the playoffs once again. Despite boasting an attacking trident of Diego Forlan, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, Tabarez is known for his compact defense and lightning quick counterattack. Much of the Uruguayans’ hopes though will rest precociously on the health of the aforementioned Suarez, whose recent knee surgery is a point of concern just before the tournament. It is thought as Suarez goes, so do La Celeste. Such is the talent of the Liverpool forward following a season in which he netted 31 times in 33 matches. Prediction: Can history repeat itself? Uruguay won’t be sneaking up on opponents this tournament. With the hosts keeping a close eye on their bogey team, there will be expectations heaped on the Uruguayans in 2014. Assuming Suarez can play, this team is an easy choice for the quarterfinals but with so many players already out due to injury, it’s hard to see Suarez being fully fit even if he does play. Uruguay may only go as far as Suarez’s knee can carry them.

Player to Watch
Much of the attention will be on the likes of Rooney, Balotelli and Suarez but keep an eye out for Raheem Sterling. Just 19 and with bundles of pace, Sterling’s inclusion in the England squad is reminiscent of Michael Owen’s in 1998. Of course England crashed out of France 1998 in their usual fashion but it was Owen’s blistering breakaway goal against Argentina that launched the then 18-year-old into World Cup lore forever.

Group Winner/Group Runner-up
The loss of Sabario really hurts Costa Rica. Likely to play on the counter, they’ll miss the striker’s timely goals. England look a team in transition, seeking experience for some young talent on a big stage now seems a good plan for a run in future tournaments but an opening match against Italy puts them squarely behind the eight ball in the group. Unsure about Suarez’s fitness, it’s tough to pick Uruguay as group winners but they have the players to easily capture the second slot in the group. Despite having a reputation as slow starters, as previous noted Prandelli’s Italy is different breed than past Azzurri teams. With their final group match against Uruguay, look for the Italians to win Group D as both teams go through to the next round.

Adam Uthe

VP of Content Development for GFT and proud supporter of Columbus Crew (MLS) and Liverpool FC (EPL). @AUtheGFT

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