At every World Cup, one group always bears the (sometimes unworthy) title of being the “Group of Death.” This summer, if any group deserves the ominous title, then it is certainly Group D.
In this type of group, anything can happen. Three elite footballing nations are battling for only two spots that will clinch progression to the knock-out rounds, and one underdog is hoping to stun their competitors. Due to the extremely unpredictable nature of the group, any prediction made can end up looking foolish.
But having said that…
Here are your Group D contenders:
Uruguay (Ranked 7th in FIFA’s World Ranking)
Uruguay’s last two decades saw them fall into the role of a sleeping giant; La Celeste have two World Cup crowns in their cabinet, but prior to 2010 they had not made it out of a group stage for 20 years.
The last World Cup changed that. After a place in the semifinals and the controversial path that they took to get there (a rising star named Luis Suarez hand-balled on Uruguay’s goal line to prevent Ghana from progressing) Uruguay were once again a name on world football’s lips.
Controversy aside, the Uruguayans finished fourth place on merit – their passionate, skillful group of players inspired the team to some fantastic performances, only being denied a place in the finals by a once-in-a-lifetime goal from Netherland’s Giovanni van Bronckhorst. Since then, Suarez (now a genuine, established superstar) has led Uruguay to a 2013 Copa America crown, taking the title of South America’s best football nation.
This summer Uruguay will hope for more of the same. If they can unleash the raw talent of duo Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani, there are few defences who could stand in their way. They could pull a repeat of the last World Cup – but without the controversy this time.
Player to watch: After initial concerns that he could miss out on the World Cup action following a knee surgery, reports suggest that superstar Luis Suarez will be back in time to help propel his country through the tournament. Suarez has gone from being the villain of the Premier League to becoming the undisputed selling point – Ronaldo and Messi may play in La Liga, but England’s club competition also has one of the world’s best players. After his record-breaking 31-goal season, Uruguayans will be holding their breath in hopes that their all-time leading goalscorer will be fit in time for their crucial Group D encounters. If he can recover in time, he has the potential to top the World Cup scoring charts this summer.
Predicted group finish: First or second place. Of course, much of this depends on the fitness and form of Suarez and Cavani – but Uruguay are ranked 6th for a reason. With a togetherness and cohesiveness to their team that perhaps tops that of their Group D competitors, you wouldn’t bet against the Uruguayans to come out of this group.
Predicted overall finish: If Uruguay can progress from the toughest group at this summer’s World Cup, then they’ll be feeling confident regardless of who they face in the knock-out rounds. Much like in 2010, the Uruguayans could find themselves with a place in the semifinals, or perhaps even further. Much, as already mentioned, rests on the shoulders of their explosive front two; games can be won with a single moment, one sublime piece of skill or expert finish. But there’s also an interesting piece of history in La Celeste’s favour – the last team to win a World Cup hosted in Brazil? Uruguay.
Costa Rica (Ranked 28th in FIFA’s World Ranking)
Costa Rica are back in World Cup action this summer after failing to qualify in 2010, and the Central American side will be looking to one up qualification and advance from the group stages for the first time in their history. Unfortunately, they couldn’t have been put in a harder group to do so.
But despite a lack of success on the world’s biggest footballing stage, the Costa Ricans are the third most successful team in the CONCACAF Championships, only claiming less titles than Mexico and the United States.
Of all three CONCACAF teams, Costa Rica are probably the least likely to advance (although they’re all likely to crash out of the groups). The gap in quality from CONCACAF games to World Cup games is something that Costa Rica has never successfully transitioned to, and it would take a miracle for them to start that now.
Costa Rica have some experienced players in their squad, but the talent to match the other three in this group just isn’t there. You had to feel sorry for them when the groups were drawn – they’ve been given an impossible task.
Player to watch: Costa Rican attacker Bryan Ruiz was subject to a bizarre mid-season loan from English club Fulham to Dutch side PSV – but it’s a move that could greatly benefit his country. Ruiz struggled to make appearances or an impact for Fulham, but since his move to PSV he is back playing regular football. Of the current squad, he is one of Costa Rica’s most capped players, and his experience playing against big teams and on big stages will be invaluable.
Predicted group finish: Last place. For the aforementioned reasons, it would be a surprise to see the Costa Ricans finish any higher than dead last in Group D.
England (Ranked 10th in FIFA’s World Ranking)
After years of listening to the media overrate English teams and players, it has become the trend to simply dismiss anything British – the mindset is that English players are over-hyped, overpriced and have a technical and tactical level that is far inferior to other more “cultured” European players.
And while at one point, some of these things may have had a shred of truth about them, it is easy to see that England’s current crop of players is a far cry from being a technically-limited bunch of individuals.
England are bringing an extremely youthful and talented squad to Brazil this summer, with tricky players from some of the Premier League’s top sides giving English fans hope for the future. For immensely talented youngsters like Raheem Sterling, Luke Shaw and Ross Barkley, this World Cup will provide invaluable experience.
But while England’s players may not be “old school” English, their manager, Roy Hodgson, certainly is. Hodgson favours a defensive 4-4-2 that will struggle to get the best out of England’s current group of players, and the Three Lions may have to relieve him of his post after this tournament. Why play a defensive style when you boast a squad with such attacking ability? Because, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic says, why have a Ferrari if you’re going to drive it like a Fiat?
Player to watch: This group could turn into the battle of Liverpool strikers – much like club teammate Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge will need to be in red-hot form for his country to progress through this exciting group. The prolific Englishman finished on 21 league goals in the Premier League, second only to Suarez, and was one of Europe’s best strikers this season. Let’s see if he can dance his way out of the Group of Death.
Predicted group finish: Second or third place. Much of this will come down to the way that Hodgson sets up his team – if he opts for an open, attacking style of play, the Englishmen could really make a statement. If he tries to soak up the pressure, it may mean elimination.
Predicted overall finish: Again, this depends on Hodgson rather than the players. Use them correctly, and the sky is the limit: a team under the leadership of Steven Gerrard, and with talented youngsters all over the pitch, has the potential to be something special.
Italy (Ranked 9th in FIFA’s World Rankings)
Italy are truly one of the heavyweights of international football – with four World Cup triumphs, only Brazil (with five) have bettered the Italians on the game’s biggest stage.
But after their World Cup win in 2006, Italian football was seemingly on the decline. Serie A, their domestic league, was failing to produce not only players, but club teams that could successfully compete in European competitions (barring a Mourinho-inspired Inter Milan).
And that’s why Italy’s appearance in the final of Euro 2012, which they eventually lost to Spain, was an important statement for the country: the Azzurri are once again a side to be feared.
Coming into this summer’s World Cup, Italy have a squad with the right balance between youth and experience. For every veteran like Buffon, Chiellini and Pirlo, there is a young, emerging star like Veratti, Immobile or Insigne. It will be up to manager Cesare Prandelli to pick a starting XI that incorporates both of these things.
Player to watch: Like a fine wine, Andrea Pirlo only gets better with age. After another Serie A title with Juventus this season, the bearded magician comes into the Italy camp ready to pull the strings in midfield again. He will be integral to everything Italy does – if Italy were a symphony, Andrea Pirlo would certainly be the conductor.
Predicted finish: The only thing that can be guaranteed (as much as you can guarantee anything in football) is that Italy won’t finish in last place in this group. Anything else, though, is entirely possible. The crucial matches against Uruguay and England will shape this group.
Predicted overall finish: Italy are the type of team who will pick up momentum in this tournament. If they can progress from the group, there’s no reason to say that they can’t get to the semifinals. Nobody expected them to make the final of Euro 2012, but when the Italians are on a roll, they are very hard to stop.