Group D action in the World Cup begins on Saturday with Uruguay facing Costa Rica in Fortaleza and England battling Italy in Manaus on Saturday.
The latter presents a rematch of the Euro 2012 quarter-finals when the Azzurri defeated The Three Lions on penalties. Meanwhile Costa Rica and Uruguay try to get off to a quick start before both sides have to square-off against the European sides.
Every team in this group enters the World Cup with unique expectations, which is what makes it so intriguing.
Expectations have never been lower for the English. The Three Lions are usually tipped to be a contender in the tournament, but have underachieved more often than not. This time, it appears as if coach Roy Hodgson is planning for the future.
England’s squad has an average age of 26.2 years, which ranks as the ninth youngest team in that category. Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, Luke Shaw, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and many others headline the list of youngsters.
However, those “kids” will have a stern test when they face Italy on Saturday. Andrea Pirlo exposed them in the Euro 2012 quarter-final and he could do the same thing on the world’s biggest stage.
On the other hand, the English have a pacey counter-attack that could trouble the Italian defence. The backline is one of Italy’s weakest in recent memory and may struggle to contain that speed.
Not many English supporters believe their team will qualify past the group stage, but considering the weakness of Uruguay’s midfield and defence, plus Costa Rica’s gap in quality, it’s entirely possible that The Three Lions can progress to the knockout stages if their youth manages to expose other sides in transition.
Nearly two years ago, Azzurri coach Cesare Prandelli led his team to the final of the European Championship, but got ripped apart by Spain losing 4-0. Now Prandelli is guiding his team into their first World Cup with him at the helm.
Key players like Gianluigi Buffon claim that anything less than a quarter-final would be a disappointment for the Nazionale. It’s a bold statement, but with the talent in midfield that Italy have, not to mention the enigma that is Mario Balotelli, the 2006 champions could progress even further if everything clicks.
One of the big worries is the defence. Out of all of the group winners in European qualification, only Germany allowed more than Italy’s nine goals during the 10 matches. On the other hand, qualifying doesn’t end up meaning a whole much. Just look at England’s and Italy’s campaign prior to the last World Cup.
Now with news of Mattia De Sciglio missing the England match, it looks even more tumultuous for the Italians. Nonetheless, their strength in midfield and variety of attackers makes up for it. Depending on which side can expose the other on the counter, that could determine who wins Group D between the English and Italy.
Even though they were semi-finalists in 2010 and the winners of the Copa America in 2011, Uruguay have regressed significantly since then. Luis Suarez may have been the Premier League’s top scorer this past season, but other than him, everyone else is entering the tournament on poor form or are way past their prime.
Edinson Cavani, a former Capocannoniere winner with Napoli, scored 16 goals in 30 games with PSG in his debut campaign in France, but his position out wide for both club and country holds him back. Cavani is a natural centre forward who boasts incredible finishing attributes, speed, technique, aerial ability and a tireless work rate.
This time it looks like Cavani will finally be played in his primary role up front. Coach Oscar Tabarez has switched to a 4-4-2 in recent World Cup friendlies with the 27-year-old and Espanyol striker Cristian Stuani beside him. When the tournament begins, Suarez will replace Stuani.
Uruguay’s average age is over 28 years old and is the third oldest out of all 32 teams. It doesn’t help when the likes of Cristian Rodriguez and Arevalo Rios are going to start, because surely that midfield will be overrun by stronger opposition than Costa Rica.
Everyone is disregarding Costa Rica in Group D. However, they finished second in CONCACAF qualifying and defeated the United States and Mexico along the way. Again, qualifiers don’t always translate to World Cup success, but underestimating this team would be a mistake.
The Costa Ricans will be ultra defensive, but they’ll be difficult to break down. They conceded the lowest number of goals in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying with seven and were the second highest scoring team. Many of those goals were created through the counter attack, which poses a problem for their first opponents in Uruguay.
Los Ticos usually have a back five with two holding midfielders, so if they can get a hold of possession, that slow Uruguayan defence could be in for a long night.